"Doctor Terror" by Literary Awards Finalist, Robert Begiebing

“You’ve been in touch with your wife again?” one of the suits asked.

“Ex-wife,” I said. The bastards must have been tapping my phone.

We were sitting around the bruised kitchen-work table in my three-room apartment in a former farmhouse in Petaluma, that old hard-working community flirting with the seductive fringes of California wine country.

“We take it she’s living in Big Sur,” the smaller suit said.

“Not that I know of,” I lied. “She told me she was calling on her cell from a friend’s place where she happened to be staying.”

“She’s helping you with a story?” the big suit asked.

“Yes.” I hesitated without meaning to. “She had some leads for me. A feature I’m doing for the Chronicle.”

“Still the gonzo freelancer at your age?” small suit said and snickered.

“Freelancing’s a respectable trade, honest work. And I’m only thirty-three. Probably younger than you.”

“Honest,” big suit said, “unless ‘this reporter’ is meeting with terrorists, knows what they’re up to, and doesn’t notify the law.”

“I’m not meeting with any terrorists. But I’m doing a story on some of these animal rights people. Renegades are my métier.” I didn’t even smile.

“Your métier,” little suit said. “Well, we know about that. Didn’t your mother ever tell you there are better things to write about than a lot of social misfits?”

“Misfits are what I do best,” I said, giving him a shit-eating grin. I decided not to ask if his mother ever told him there were better things to do than harass journalists.

“Do best,” little suit said. “Way we hear it, you’re damned near persona non grata. Way you screwed up and nearly went to jail, and the editor too, for that last little bit of investigative bullwhacky for Mother Jones.”

“Not quite,” I said. “Anyway, I’ve done a lot of work for the Chronicle since I left my staff job there years ago. And on this story, I have a line to CNN as well, for an interview. I’ve made my share of mistakes, but I still get work.” I wasn’t about to admit that work was harder to get these days, that I was looking to this piece for—what?—vindication?

“Look,” little suit continued—a terrier worrying a toy—”you play ball and you don’t get into trouble. You protect these kinds of people and we’ll hand you your ass. That simple.”

Little suit went on a bit longer, but they were not really after me. They were after the people I intended to write about—one Dr. Stephen Rico and his assistant, who happened to be my Ex. There had been a report one day in the San Francisco Chronicle that Dr. Rico was wanted for aiding and abetting domestic terrorists. The article repeated the old speculations that he might be holed up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the Sierras, in Baja, or in a number of other places. All through the eighties and nineties the government’s attitude toward “domestic terrorism” in the animal rights movement had been toughening: the Animal Enterprises Protection Act had made it a felony to rescue lab and fur animals.

One snag on this story, however, would be that my only real “contact” was Susan. We’d parted without too many recriminations, and to be sure there were other difficulties, but the final shoal upon which the fragile vessel of our five-year marriage foundered was her ever-growing zeal for animal rights.

I’d spent twenty minutes on the line trying to convince her that the paper was hoping to get the doctor’s side of the story, that the government was having a propaganda field day. It seemed, I argued, as if they were softening up public opinion before going in to break heads.

“So, you finally decided to kill your mother,” she said, turning back on me the old line for those favoring the medical research argument: “If it comes down to a lab rat or your mother, who you gonna save?”

Finally she invited me down to Monterey to “look her in the eye” and promise to protect my sources. Meanwhile, she would see whether Steve Rico had any tolerance for my interview idea.

I hated to drive down and spend money to look Susan in the eye, but as sometimes happens after a long time in the sloughs of despair, there’s some vague, at least, promise in the wind.

*****

I threw a couple of overnight bags in the car and, after various avoid-and-escape maneuvers, drove down to Monterey to meet Susan along the Seventeen Mile Drive at a specified turn-off facing the ocean. Had I forgotten what a dark-haired beauty she was? We talked like reasonable adults for over an hour, but she was serious, almost grave. The good doctor had certain terms. I had to live and work with him for a week or two, not just blow in and out like some journalistic parasite who would write up his first impressions. Finally she told me: “If you cross me and him, you’ll make more enemies than you think.”

“Does he know the Feds are coming for him?” I asked.

“He’s not stupid.”

“So he’s finally willing to get his side of the story out there.”

“He’s willing to take a chance on you because he knows some of your work. And, yes, it’s time to get out another side to the story.”

Susan drove me down the coast from Monterey, requesting I go blindfolded for the final hour. When I took the blindfold off, a little carsick, I shook my head, rubbed my eyes, and found myself way up on grassy slopes high above the endless Pacific. I recognized the landscape generally, but only a native might have guessed where he was in that 100-mile band of coastal mountains.

“It’s an old ranch house retrofitted to run on solar power,” Susan said, “or on a diesel generator if the sun quits for days.”

Sprawling and shabby from the outside, the house inside was high-tech in the surgical wing and comfortable if simple in the living quarters. On the drive out Susan told me Steve Rico had bought the old place with proceeds from selling his fancy practice in the Bay area.

“We’re real busy right now,” Susan said, as she showed me around. Her brown and white greyhound Gogirl, who appeared to remember me, started weaving between us. “Steve will talk to you later.” She brought me back outside and up to an outbuilding that looked like an old bunkhouse. She opened the door with her keys and let the dog and me in first. The building had been partitioned into one room and several stalls, and the room, she said, would be mine. There was a single large window, a bed, a chair with a table serving as a desk, an open built-in clothes closet about two feet deep and three wide, a small bureau, and a sink. And a little old potbelly wood stove.

“It’s just cold water out here,” Susan said. “But I’ll show you where you can shower in the office, and of course you can always use the rest room in the waiting area. Steve’ll give you a set of keys.”

The view from the window sold me, looking down toward hills just turning from green to early-summer bronze and toward a stretch of redwood forest rising out of a lower ravine.

“We like to eat dinner about seven,” she added. “That’s just after quitting time most days, if we’re lucky.”

I brought in my bags and laptop and arranged my gear to my liking. Gogirl, ears flat, tail whipping, followed my every move, until Susan hurried off with the dog in tow.

*****

About two o’clock Doc Rico came over, a tall forty-something guy with a mustache and a thick head of pre-maturely graying hair. A regular Marlboro Man.

“Of course Susan’s told me about you,” he said. He was affable enough and slow-talking, like a movie Texan, and he wanted me to be comfortable.

“We have to take it as it comes. Sometimes it’s emergency room chaos. Other times it’s just routine vet-office work: our cash income. Pets of trusted locals. Ranchers with cows, goats, or horses. Sometimes I make calls.”

“I’m in, Doctor Rico,” I said.

“Please,” he said. “Just Steve. We’ll be working close.”

“Fine with me.”

“What we could use right now is someone to help out with grunt work to free us up for diagnosis, surgery, and the ER stuff. At the moment we’re having a hell of a time just keeping up with the animals coming in, sheer record keeping, I mean. So entry is important, writing down as each animal’s brought in any info you can. Susan’ll show you the paperwork.”

“Whatever helps,” I said.

“And then there’s feeding and cleaning kennels and stalls.”

“I need the exercise.”

“And sometimes in emergency care situations we need one more hand. So there’s that too.”

I nodded my head.

“But the rest of today why don’t you just follow and mostly watch. Till you see the operation and how we work together.”

“Fine,” I repeated. “When do I start?”

He looked around the room. “Ready now?”

“Ready.”

I followed him and Susan around the rest of the afternoon. In each of the three examination rooms I noticed a framed copy of the “Animal Bill of Rights.”

Deprived of legal protection,” it read in part, “animals are defenseless against exploitation and abuse by human beings. . . .” Then it urged the 102nd Congress to pass legislation for a long list of “basic rights for animals.”

Steve and Susan didn’t seem to get tired as they labored. About half the work—the animal rescue work—was without remuneration. But the paying customers expected their best as well, so they gave it.

*****

Even after hours, Susan was always thinking about animals. One evening when we were sitting out on the back deck after dinner finishing a second bottle of Cabernet, I asked her whether they took in wild animals. I hadn’t seen any.

“We don’t make a point of it,” she replied. “But we do take whatever comes in, if it’s suffering in some way. Just last week, before you got here, we worked on a coyote whose leg had been badly broken in a trap.”

“They’re still doing that kind of stuff?”

“They’re still doing every kind of stuff, as you’ll see soon enough.”

“What else do you get?” I asked.

“You mean wild?”

“Yes.”

“Well, there’s always animals that get trapped or shot. We’ve worked on everything from hawks to mountain lions to seals. Usually with the sea birds and mammals it’s some kind of pollution stress or fishing gear tangle up.”

“Mountain lions?”

“They’re a protected species, finally,” she said, looking at Steve. “We’ve worked on a few. More than 5,000 they estimate in California now. But just as they come back, people are moving into their established territories and passageways. So confrontations are on the increase, of course. For us, though, it’s still domestic and research animals most of the time.”

“From labs mostly, you mean?”

“Got your note pad?” she said, looking at me as if wondering whether I was ready for her to go into it. “We get animals from all kinds of situations, Jerry. But if sheer volume is your measure, it’s the labs doing the most damage. Because it’s about 600 million lab animals killed in the U.S. alone. At a cost to the rest of us of about 80 billion dollars a year.” She stopped to let it sink in.

I finally shook my head.

“Temples of Science and Industry.” She laughed derisively.

I’d obviously pressed her button. “Enough to make any complacent, fur-wearing citizen vomit all over her fashionable shoes?” I said.

She looked at me, knowing better than to count me a true believer.

“I guess it’s endless,” I went on.

“Nothing people won’t do for ego or money,” she said.

“But you can’t think about it like that,” Steve put in finally. He had been sitting there on the deck sipping quietly from his wineglass while we talked. “You think about it like that all the time, you end up crippled by your own anger and sorrow. You end up a useless misanthrope; you even start cussing God.”

He looked at us. “So you just go ahead and try to make a small but important difference.” He got up, continuing to look out over the folds of mountains and hills below us. “You don’t care what people think of you. You do it for the animals, the ones suffering. Somebody’s got to take their side. People, the authorities even, can go on thinking whatever they want. That simple. In the end you do a little good in the world.” He turned toward us. He looked right at Susan and she smiled. Then the sorrow came off his face and he finally smiled back. “Makes your life worth living,” he said.

*****

The next day I was coming out of my bunkroom after a mid-day rest when I caught sight of a woman standing alone down the hill from me in the vegetable garden. Two rescued German Shepherds, Jake and Jasper, who spent a good part of their days patrolling the garden and the perimeter of Steve’s compound, were sniffing around nearby, tails down, almost as if they didn’t know she was there. She wore a light tan, full-length gardening dress, and her long copper-colored hair, spectacular enough for a commercial, was beginning to streak gray.

At dinner, a rice and vegetable stew I made in my turn at kitchen duty, I told Steve and Susan what I had seen.

“Oh, that’s our resident ghost,” Susan said.

“Sucks the blood of journalists,” Steve added, as he filled my empty wineglass.

“Well, I didn’t hear a car pull up or anything,” I said. “Didn’t Robinson Jeffers believe in spooks hereabouts?” I had seen Jeffers’s works among their bookshelves.

“Her name’s Jane,” Susan said.

“Jane,” I said.

“You see, after all, we do have a neighbor,” Steve said. “You can’t see her place from here though. It’s an old cabin she’s fixed up down in the Redwoods along the stream.”

“Last year she left the man she lived with three years. One in a long line of boyfriends,” Susan reported. “She says, ‘I can’t live with a man; it just never works after a time’.”

“So she came here to escape men?”

“Sort of,” Susan said. “She’s a painter, and a writer herself. She wants to be left alone, not led into temptation.” She glanced at Steve and smiled. “But we made a deal with her that if she tends our well-manured vegetable garden, she gets to take whatever she needs. She’s the one who planted the herbs.”

“Very Big Sur,” I said.

“More than you think,” Steve said. “She grows marijuana in scattered areas around these parts. Another source of income.”

“Well-manured,” I said. “The FBI is going to have a field day once they finally get up here.”

“Nothing any of us can do about it once they decide to come,” Steve said. “FBI’s convinced having a vet working with the direct action people provides motivation and support.”

“Cutting you out, they believe, will do real damage to the movement,” I said.

“Fools,” Susan said.

I had helped with a few rescue cases. Just that day a small two-year-old female cat was brought in. She lay in a basket as if asleep but with her eyes open in a kind of broken lethargy, the languor of defeat.

Susan saw me staring at the animal. “Behavioral experiments,” she said. “Probably most of her life.”

I reached out and stroked her soft fur.

“She doesn’t know how she’s supposed to respond,” Susan said.

“What’ll happen to her?”

“She’ll probably have to go down.”

I continued stroking her, the eyes closed once, twice, and opened to stare at me. Her eyes seemed to soften. “She’s starting to purr,” I said.

“Really?”

“Yes,” I said. “Listen.”

Susan bent her face down toward the cat. “Wow,” she said. “It’s probably the first time she’s purred since leaving her mother.”

There had been others, like a dog, a beagle I think, who had been so traumatized from sleep deprivation experiments that he couldn’t stop shaking, no matter how gently he was treated or how much sleep he was now allowed.

“Why?” I asked.

“God knows.”

“You suppose God knows anything about it?” I said. I knew she had put the beliefs of her girlhood—in God and a heaven for humanity—behind her years ago.

“Jane had worked with us too, a few hours a week, for a time,” she said, “but she couldn’t take it long. A lot of people react that way—even the rescue people, I mean.”

“I can see why.”

“Well,” she said, “at least now you know firsthand.”

“I’ll write an honest piece,” I said. “And as promised, no one will know where you are.”

She looked straight at me. “We’re banking on it.”

*****

Two nights later, while I was in my room working my notes into early drafts, the apparition arrived at my door.

“I hear you’ve been asking about me,” she said.

“Well, I saw you down by the garden and wondered who you were, or are. Jane.”

“That’s me.” She stood there, her hair beckoning, wearing a long India-print skirt and an old maroon sweatshirt over a black tank top. “Going to ask me in?”

“I thought that was dangerous,” I said, “inviting apparitions past one’s threshold.”

“In these parts it’s more dangerous not to.”

“Come on in then.” She accepted a seat and a beer out of a small cooler I kept going with ice from Steve’s refrigerator.

She looked to be in her mid-thirties, with that calm, self-confidant presence of people who study Yoga. She took a sip and watched me as I shut down my laptop.

“You’re writing them up,” she said.

“They filled you in.”

“Oh, I know all about you.” She laughed quietly. “I hope you’ll do them justice. ‘Bout time somebody did.”

“I always try to be fair.”

“Maybe a freelancer can be more honest. The Chronicle?” she said. “You’re from New England, originally.”

I looked at her. “You dig into everybody’s background?’

“Only people presuming to write about my friends.”

“Fair enough. Anyway, I soon learned a beginning reporter is a dogsbody. So I started branching out immediately—worked both staff and freelance for years, mostly from Monterey to Petaluma. Then I finally went national. Took almost ten years before the big boys started letting me into the clubhouse from time to time.” She was watching me carefully. “I hear you write yourself, and paint.”

“Mostly paint.” She looked around my room. “Nice cell,” she said. “Getting comfortable here?”

“In fact I am. But a little sick of damaged animals.”

“I know the feeling.” She took a sip. “They want to make a terrorist out of him,” she added. “You know what that means if they catch him?”

“I know. Doctor Terror. I’m thinking maybe the title of my piece.”

“They’ll find him, implicate him in some of the major rescue and sabotage actions on the West Coast. Lots of the others, the stealthy activists, they can’t find.”

“He’s a sitting duck,” I said. “They’ll screw Susan to the wall as well, of course.”

“That’s why your article might be important, if they get to him. Somebody’s going to have to shine a light on what’s going on up here and why it’s going on. Public opinion sometimes helps.”

“As I said, I’ll be fair.”

“I sure. Fucking. Hope so.” It was the first time her voice carried a kind of intensity, beyond the Yoga-like calm, I mean. Her hazel-blue eyes looked right through me.

“You don’t trust me,” I said.

“I don’t know you.”

“I’m a very likeable guy. Didn’t they tell you?”

“They seem to trust you. Maybe that’s good enough. But they’ve been had before.”

“That’s not my mission here.”

“Forgive me if I withhold judgment.”

“You plan to keep an eye on me.”

“Something like that.”

“And if I don’t cooperate?”

“You’ll play it straight with me if you’re for real. I’m not the outsider. You are.”

“What do you want from me?”

“Honesty.” Her eyes were still looking through me. “Maybe you are a good guy.”

“As good as they come.” I gave her an exaggerated smile.

She laughed, finished her beer in one long pull, and said, “We’ll see about that.” She stood up. “You’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow. Better turn in.” She smiled. I couldn’t read her yet. I didn’t say anything. “Goodnight,” she said, turned, and walked out the door.

Now I felt so completely awake there wasn’t much chance of sleep, so I turned my laptop back on. Maybe ten minutes into the writing there was a tentative scratching at my door. I got up and let Gogirl in. “Can Jerry come out and play?” her big eyes and body were saying.

“No, girl,” I said, “not now. Too late. Where’re your people?”

She made a sweet whimpering sound.

“But you’re welcome to stay.”

She wagged her tail and shot over to the writing table. I returned and patted her while she settled herself on the floor beside me. She looked up as if to say, “I’m comfortable for now, Jerry. You’ll give in and go for a walk with me eventually.”

Before I knew Gogirl I had always thought of greyhounds as scrawny, aerodynamic creatures. But her skeleton did not protrude and her brown and white fur was wonderfully soft and beautiful, except for a black scar down her side, what Susan called “her emblem of the dues she had paid humanity.” She and Susan had been together for a long time, since Susan was a pre-veterinary student at the University of New Hampshire, when she had taken Gogirl as one of those rescued dogs from a Florida racetrack.

I couldn’t get back into the article, so I gave up and went to bed. Afraid Susan might be looking for her later and get worried, I let Gogirl out.

*****

Steve Rico didn’t take to interviews. While we worked, I gleaned a few details about his decision to throw over a lucrative practice. The story was about what I expected—a gradual yet increasing experience with animals from local shelters, leading to animals rescued from all kinds of horrific situations. He began to see so much suffering that he decided there was enough to make a life’s work fighting it.

Talking to him reminded me of the letters Susan had written when we were separated and in the preliminary processes of divorce. I still had the letters. I guess she wanted me to know why she couldn’t live with anyone who did not sympathize, or who could not forgive her zeal.

In one letter she explained her shock one summer working for her father’s nationally based law firm, Boston office. She discovered the firm was representing some kind of NIH research at the University of California. “Worst promoters of vivisection in the country, the NIH,” she wrote. “I got a peek into the vast cartel of laboratory-medical-consumer industries: a huge tax payer-financed network of Dr. Moreaus.” She and her father got into a huge fight, he threw i n her face her upper-middle class life founded on his law practice, so she quit college and ran away to San Francisco to work in the animal liberation network. That’s how I first met Susan, set up on a blind date as two “Easterners” by a mutual friend.

*****

The next night just before I was heading over to the main house for dinner, Susan’s night to cook, Jane returned. “I brought you some reading,” she said, handing me a brown paper bag with handles weighed down by books.

“For entertainment, or because you think my education limited?”

“For both. You might as well know what others have said about the place where Steve and Susan live. Kerouac was too far into the booze to make much out of Big Sur beyond a tragic stage for his operatic self-destruction. Still, I threw Kerouac in too. Along with The Natural History of Big Sur. And Henry Miller, of course. Others on history and folklore.” She pointed to the bag again, which I had set down on my bed.

“I don’t have much time to read here,” I said.

She reached into the bag, fumbled around, and pulled out a book. “Ever read Henry Miller on this place?”

“Like most people, only the sweaty eyeballs urological-gynecological passages, at the age of sixteen or thereabouts.”

“You are an ignoramus then,” she said. She opened the book, a rather fat one held up so I could see the title: Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. “You talk about the views, the light.” She was flipping through the pages. “If they are in fact arrested, you’ll want to write not only about what they did but how and where they lived.”

“You think they will be soon?”

“I said if . . . .” Finally, she sat down on the edge of the bed. “Listen to this.” She began to read.

It is an old, nostalgic hue which one sees in the works of the Flemish and Italian masters. It is not only the tone and color of distance, abetted by the magic fall of light, it is a mystical phenomenon . . . .In both dawn and sunset we have what I like to think of as ‘the true light’. . . creating an ambiance of super-reality, or the reality behind reality. . . . Toward sundown, when the hills in back of us are flushed with that other ‘true light,’ the trees and scrub in the canyons take on a wholly different aspect. Everything is brush and cones, umbrellas of light—the leaves, boughs, stalks, and trunks standing out separate and defined, as if etched by the Creator Himself. . . . It is no longer earth and air, but light and form—heavenly light, celestial form. When this intoxicating reality reaches its height the rocks speak out.

“Who’d have thought it?” I said, “Henry Miller the nature writer.”

“It’s a good book,” she said. “An honest book, the likes of which we hardly see anymore. You’ll learn a lot about Big Sur from him.”

“I’ll look into it. Thank you.”

“I brought you another present,” she said. She stood up and unfolded a bag from one of the ample pockets in her full-length unbleached linen sundress. “For your head,” she said and tossed me the paper lunch bag. Inside was a plastic sandwich bag full of grass.

“Thanks, but I don’t do much of this anymore.”

“It’s a gift,” she said. “Look, I’ll roll one now.” She took a packet of papers out of her pocket and grabbed the bag back. “Not anymore?” she asked.

“Rare occasions.”

She looked at me, eyebrows arched, working the grass into tiny flakes.

“Despite appearances, I’m not a kid any longer.”

“Ha—Ha,” she said, prolonging the pause between Ha’s. “Give it a try.” She had a stiff little joint rolled and took out a booklet of matches. Before I could protest further, she was handing me the dube after a deep toke of her own. I sat down and she returned to the edge of the bed. What the hell, I thought.

It was “some heavy shit,” as they say. The thought floated by that maybe she’d laced it with something.

“You don’t want to do anything that requires rational thought or concentration on this stuff.” She offered a wicked smile. “Good?”

“A testament to your green thumb.”

“What makes the crops happy?”

“A labor of love,” I said.

Her copper hair seemed to float slightly out into the air around her head. She was still looking right at me, smiling, as if to gauge the effect of her harvest on a newcomer to her domain. I was strangely in tune with her for the first time since we’d met. Perhaps that was her plan. Some mutual lotus-eater thing she was laying on me.

I slowly became certain that she was wearing nothing underneath the plain, linen dress, as if her body were reading me and beckoning to me while still clothed. All imagined, of course, but no denying the sensation.

She seemed to be waiting for some sign from me, as if to prove I could handle it. These were just thoughts floating by like unflappable, strange, iridescent fish.

“We’ll have a meeting of the minds, you and I,” she was saying, “before you finish your piece. I’d like to help you get it right.”

“Get it right.”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“Well, that’s my plan.” I didn’t want her screwing around with my drafts, but she might have some good background to offer; she might be able to answer some questions. Maybe.

By then, however, her happy crop had me feeling like a man without a will or mind of his own.

“Jerry!” Steve’s voice suddenly boomed from his deck. “Jerry! Dinner.”

Jane got up and tossed the plastic bag back to me. “Don’t forget to check these out,” she said, pointing to the bag of books. Then she was gone before my brain registered her departure.

*****

For the first two days of that next week the veterinary work—the mundane punctuated by the horrific—continued. But then Susan began putting out for adoption at an accelerated rate some of the rescued animals. The third night, while I was in bed, I kept hearing cars and pick-ups pulling in and out. I looked out my doorway a few times, but from where I was I couldn’t see much. Susan had warned me that I might be hearing some traffic around the place, but insisted that I not spook anybody by my presence.

The next morning I woke up late from being up half the night. Just as I was washing my face in cold water, I heard a knock on my door.

Jane. She came in and sat on the bed while I finished dressing.

“Long night,” I said. “You look as tired as I feel.”

“They’re gone,” she said.

“Gone.”

“Last night.”

“Where?”

“They got the rest of the animals out. There’s just a few of the local domestic animals left waiting for their owners to come pick them up.”

“Why?”

“Everybody knew it had to come. Just not when.”

“The Feds.”

“They could be here any time. You don’t want to be around for that either.”

“Where the hell to?”

“Nobody knows where Steve planned to go. As for the animals, those not placed were sent off to a legal sanctuary in Utah. Monkeys, cats, even the rats. You don’t want to know any more because, first, you can’t write about it without endangering Steve’s safety and, second, you can’t write or talk about it without endangering an operation doing good work. And that went out on a limb for Steve.”

“Jesus H. Christ.”

“And Steve didn’t want anybody to know the details, didn’t want to leave anyone with the responsibility of knowing a damned thing when the interrogations begin.”

That’s when I saw the whole thing before me in about half a second. My article, my fee, my by-line, (like Susan herself): Gone. Wouldn’t publishing the article now jeopardize Steve, Susan, and some holy legal animal farm in Utah?

“I don’t even have a car,” I said.

“You can’t wait around for a ride. Besides, no phone, remember?”

“You think they’ll be here—”

“Soon,” she interrupted. “Or Steve wouldn’t have bolted. It’s getting serious now.”

“I don’t know how I got in here.”

She got up and pointed to my bags. “Better come with me.”

I started throwing in clothes and papers and packing up my laptop. I wasn’t even awake yet but I was sweating on adrenaline.

Her two-room cabin had a kitchen, a fine sitting-and-sleeping room with a large skylight, a single stove for cooking and heating, and a separate small bathhouse, in the Big Sur custom. I settled in, hoping we might look as if we belonged together. By mid afternoon we heard them coming up to Steve’s place, several black SUVs.

*****

Jane had a kind of reading seat on the floor made of old couch cushions and pillows I had been sitting on after supper. I asked if I could make up a bed on the floor. When she agreed, I adjusted the seat into a rough bed and lay down, exhausted, my head on a pillow propped against the wall. We talked quietly for a while about what to do tomorrow.

“Here’s something I don’t understand yet,” I said. “Sabotage, or ecotage, or any sort of destruction of property for a cause.”

“Well, people wouldn’t choose to do it,” she said, “but don’t the circumstances of animal abuse and habitat destruction require drastic measures? Financial disincentives? Serious delay?”

“You’re all convinced there’s no other way.”

“The other ways have all been tried, for decades. But as usual the fix is in. The law has been sold to the highest bidder and the slickest lobbyists. People of goodwill are not given another choice, an equitable system through which to make their case.”

“But the liberation side then opens itself up to charges of violence and terrorism,” I said. “Most citizens, readers, can’t support that. The direct action people end up isolating themselves, even on issues where they’d probably have, initially, public sympathy.”

“Look. The citizens have been milk fed by a government and media that don’t make the distinction between terrorism—the destruction of innocent human life—and direct action. The defacing of property, the liberation of animals.”

“So it’s only the fringe nutcases who go after people, you mean.”

“Sure. Unabombers. Fanatics. Nobody I ever knew in the movement goes after people, or even thinks about it.”

She got up from her chair and went over to a kitchen cabinet, where she pulled out a plastic baggie, then returned to her seat and started rolling a joint.

I looked at her. “Are you crazy? With these government guys sniffing around?”

“They’re tied up just now with more important things. Like the Highway Patrol when they’ve pulled someone over: you can keep speeding along.”

“Tell it to the judge.”

She laughed. “You need some anxiety reduction.”

“I find it paranoia producing, myself.”

“Not this stuff. This is my special crop. Real mellow. Shut up and take a hit.” She put the joint in my face so I went ahead.

“How would you educate the public then?”

“Well, people like you can get a story out. All you can do is report the record, but that’s enough.” She looked at me like a teacher assessing a slow child. “Look for context, see? Start at least back in the seventies. The personal violence has been done to the activists, not by the activists, especially in the environmental movement: Buzz Youens, Jeff Elliot, and David Chain, among others less famous. It’s a little different in animal liberation because the activists operate more by stealth , less by public protest.”

“Historical context,” I said, as if to myself.

“I’ll help. But write about it. Somebody has to present the truth, beyond the alternative press I mean. They’re way too far under the public’s radar.”

She smiled for the first time, crushed out the roach, got up, made another joint and lit up. “Let’s not talk about it anymore for now. I’m getting upset all over again.”

She offered me a hit of the mellow. I shrugged it off. She shrugged her shoulders and smoked it herself. We were quiet now while I watched her enjoy the fruit of her labors.

“You don’t have to sleep on the floor,” she finally said.

Her bed was a single. But I was too far gone to move or act or think what to say. Then in the light of two kerosene lamps she was taking off her jeans and jersey. The next thing I knew she was standing over me in a kind of washed-out red bathrobe, open at the front, ties dangling, and I could see the glow, the warmth and life, of her body. She got down with me on the makeshift bed and I could smell the musky tang of smoke in her hair and something else—some mild, sweet soap—as I began to nuzzle her flesh. We were both at that point in the high where we just went deeper and deeper together into that foggy, ecstatic experience of each other’s bodies, so far under that even now I can’t recall just what we did. Only that it was some sort of cosmic copulation.

*****

By about 8:30 the next morning, they found their way down to Jane’s. We heard them driving down the steep, barely passable dirt road. I slipped out the back and down into a wooded ravine. I sat by a roaring stream a good long time. I wondered if Steve and Susan had asked her to watch out for me. It would have been just like them.

Jane later told me what happened. When she answered the door, there were two guys with federal ID dressed all in navy blue: slacks, hunting jackets, baseball caps, and bullet vests. Black combat boots. They said they were looking for her neighbors up the mountain who seemed to have left in a hurry.

Jane’s line was that she didn’t know her neighbors because they had not been friendly. Almost as if they didn’t want anybody around. No, she didn’t know they were leaving, or anything else about their lives, really. She told me the guy asking most of the questions gave her a look that seemed to say: We’ll get to you later, lady. We’ll find something to make you squeal. Then one of the men handed her a slip of paper.

“What’s this?” she asked and read from the slip.

I have seen a wing-broken hawk, standing in her own dirt,

Helpless, a caged captive, with cold

Indomitable eyes of disdain, meet death. There was nothing

pitiful,

No degradation, but eternal defiance.

“Don’t know,” he finally said, eyeing her. “Found it taped to the refrigerator up at the ranch. Mean anything to you?”

“I think it’s Robinson Jeffers,” she said. “Famous local dead poet. You could stop by Tor House up in Carmel, now a national literary shrine. They’d know.” When he took the paper back and turned it around a bit, she said, “Some kind of last word to whoever came along after they were gone?”

He squinted at her. “Something like that.”

In the afternoon I sneaked up the heights well behind Jane’s place, probably close to the four thousand foot level. From up there in high grasslands I could see Steve’s ranch house below, way off to my left. There was no sign of anyone around the ranch.

I hiked about for some time because I needed to clear my head. I could see the five thousand footers, off in the northern horizon. Susan once told me that the ancients knew the range as the Sacred Mountains.

Finally, I sat down, watching the stupendous coastline on a day of sun and clouds that brought the sea colors out like a travel brochure—aquamarines, deep blues, shadowy grays, and thin white lines of distant, unfurling breakers, as if etched by the Creator Himself. I spotted a red-tailed hawk playing in the thermal currents. He was below me in altitude, and doing all kinds of Kamikaze dips and dives, loop-de-loops, and fancy pullouts. He finally lighted on a dead treetop to rest, or to preen on his own audacity.

Later, I noticed below me a black-tail deer grazing. I watched her for quite a while in the binoculars I had never returned to Steve. Her coat seemed rough, on the gray side. Then in time a yearling appeared, more a shade of brown, and finally three other large full-grown deer grazed up the grassy ravine.

When I stood up to get a better look at them, the first deer froze and looked up at me. We looked directly at one another, motionless, for perhaps three minutes. Putting the binoculars back up to my face must have clarified my intrusion for her. She turned and began to move back down the slope with strange graceful prancing steps, almost as if in slow motion. She hesitated from time to time to look back up toward me. The others began to follow her.

As I watched, my eye caught another movement down the shimmering slopes of grass turning bronze. I couldn’t make sense of it at first, but then I saw a cougar emerging from behind a lone oak tree. I didn’t dare even raise my glasses. I recalled that one of Jane’s books told me the Native Americans called the mountain lion the “Cat of God,” the wild creature who maintained harmony between heaven and humanity.

The big cat hesitated, looked down the slope toward the deer, then up toward me. He was too far away to really see his eyes, but it felt as though our stares locked. Then he looked straight ahead again and began to slouch purposefully through the grass, his powerful shoulders working beneath the tawny pelt. I was able to watch him for all of two minutes before he disappeared. No mistake, he was God’s cat. He bespoke the reality behind reality.

I thought of all the Indian middens Robinson Jeffers had found on his house site up the coast now heavy with residences and shops and eateries. And I thought about the wildlife there even seventy years ago: coyotes, deer, all kinds of hawks, brown bears, and of course cougars. Maybe even a few Grizzlies left back up in the wildest mountains. All held in a balance or harmony no one would live to see again.

*****

Why, after I returned to report to Jane, had I not been able to talk about seeing God’s cat? Perhaps because he had deigned to share his presence with me, and to share it in turn with another human being would have felt something like betrayal. The effect of his sudden presence had been that powerful.

Assuming her dilapidated VW wagon would come under surveillance, Jane hiked from her woods to some neighbors two ridges over. They had a cell phone that worked because their place was situated along the coast across from a monastery that had a satellite dish. She called a friend named Barbara, and they planned our escape. Barbara would meet us at the bottom of the mountain on Route 1. Jane bundled us up with old backpacks early the next morning. Even as we heard the black SUV’s heading our way, we locked the doors and windows, scrambled out, and hauled through the redwoods down the mountain.

By the time the FBI could have called in dogs or trackers we were gone. I suppose they eventually found her crops widely scattered around the mountain. They were the kind of people to find whatever you had.

Once we met up with Barbara, she offered Jane safe haven at her house. Then Jane “went sort of loony,” as a month later she wrote to me, from being away from her cabin. She’d be damned if the FBI would get anything out of her or for any longer scare her out of her home.

Who can now explain why the government men did not return to bother her? Expecting them to, she assumed surveillance and stopped cultivating and harvesting her weed. I’m sure that alone changed her life.

*****

My guess is that I’m on some government list of unsavory journalists. I assume my phone is tapped. But even though I did finally publish my piece in the Chronicle, they leave me alone. And if CNN lost interest, the Associated Press did not. We were able to publish a year later for a couple of reasons. Enough time had passed for the good doctor and Susan to disappear into whatever fastness they had absconded. And then, after September 11, 2001, the U.S. government seemed to lose its focus on domestic activists on behalf of animals or ecosystems. Maybe the Feds had their hands too full to pursue relentlessly, at least for the time being, those who might deface property and save animals but who went out of their way to avoid any damage to human beings.

It’s “very quiet now, and very safe,” Jane wrote to me. Her letter arrived after I sent her a copy of my article. “Congratulations, Jerry,” she wrote. “It is an honest piece, after all.” Like everyone, Jane was distraught by the airliner-bombings in New York. But she included troubling lines from Jeffers in her letter.

We might remember

Not to hate any person, for all are vicious;

And not be astonished at any evil, all are deserved;

And not fear death; it is the only way to be cleansed.

I ponder those words and her letters, but I haven’t gone back to visit Jane. Three years later, I still have unsettling dreams about Big Sur: about damaged animals, about men in navy blue, about Steve and Susan and the terrible risks of their work. Big Sur, I regret to admit, has become for me like one of those places in serial nightmares that you pray you won’t be returning to. The cougars are losing, it seems clear to me now. And how many of us can still believe, as Susan would probably say, that there’s any possibility of our regaining an ancient harmony between heaven and humanity?

Robert Begiebing is the author of six books, including a trilogy of widely-reviewed novels, and 30 articles and stories. His fiction has been supported by grants from the Lila Wallace Foundation and the NH Council on the Arts. He teaches at Southern NH University where he has won three awards for excellence in teaching.


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