by Paul Hetzler
1. Always Follow Directions
It’s the second time this week that a client has been attacked because they strayed out of bounds to get a better picture—seems like there’s one on every trip who thinks they’re too good for the rules and I say they get what they deserve. Sweat stings my eyes as I stumble along the jungle trail with the power blower strapped to my back.
Mr. Brant is somewhere under the twelve-foot tall bird-mass and it’s my job to get to him before he suffocates. Leith yanks the starter cord on the five-horsepower engine behind me and the trusty Tanaka two-stroke roars to life on the first pull. I grip the output wand with both hands, playing the five-thousand cubic foot per second blast in practiced arcs back and forth over the surface of the mass, peeling away layer upon layer of birds.
The sky darkens as the Venezuelan cliff swallows disperse by the thousands, possibly more than ten thousand in this mass, and take to the air. After five minutes I’m down to the innermost layer of swallows, the specialized Guard Birds which undoubtedly were the first to give the alarm and attack, all males and three times the size of a normal swallow. I ramp up the throttle to dislodge these larger creatures, and finally they, too, take wing. Off to the sides are dozens of bodies of ordinary Venezuelan cliff swallows who themselves suffocated, sacrificing their lives to protect their communal nesting grounds in an impressive display of cooperative defense.
With Mr. Brant free of birds, I shut down the engine and before I can doff my pack, Leith and Sara are by the man’s side checking for pulse and respiration. His color’s good and I relax a little; he’s going to be fine and we don’t need an Incident Report and another mark against our insurance.
“I think he’ll be OK in a few minutes if we just back off and give him some air,” I suggest.
Sara shakes her head gravely and reaches for her radio; she’s going to call in the Medivac helicopter.
“You know the motto of Avian Adventure Outfitters,” she says. “‘If swallowed, seek medical attention immediately.’”
2. Good Old-Fashioned Calamine Lotion
The Right Reverend Cotton Mather Wool, named for a silver-tongued Puritan minister whose exuberant campaign of genocide against the peaceful Narragansetts opened up a significant chunk of New England for settlement by God’s chosen, was proud of his namesake. He knew that as long as he stayed in North America, chances were he wouldn’t encounter anyone who knew of Cotton Mather’s dark passion, and with a moniker like ‘Puritan,’ how could you go wrong?
Rev. Wool wore a smug smile as he polished the brass nameplate on the wall outside his office, a nameplate announcing to the world, or to the portion thereof that somehow found its way to, or past, his office, that he was the Solemn Premier Benedictor in the Fourth Order Prefectory of the Calvinist Church of the Reformed Christ, North American Branch. He had worked his Right Reverend ass off to get that post.
Down on the ground floor, a wan young man leaned against a heavy oak door until it yielded, stepped in from the bright sunshine and let the door thud shut behind him. Inside was cool and musty and he blinked in the semi-darkness. After some minutes he could make out the form of a white-haired Curate dozing behind the reception desk.
“Excuse me?” said the young man in a timid voice.
The Curate startled, then blushed deeply, though the college student couldn’t see this in the dim light.
The old man coughed. “Yes, yes, how may I help you, my son?”
“I’m here about the Part-Time Assistant to the Secretary to the Administrative Assistant to the Solemn Premier Benedictor in the Fourth Order Prefectory of the Calvinist Church of the Reformed Christ, North American Branch.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” wheezed the Curate. “Take the stairs behind me to the second floor, turn left, room two-ninety, apply with Cotton Wool.”
3. Television Remotes and Other Toxic Substances
“As you know, the world summit on the Mars Rover Parasite epidemic has been moved here to the arctic where our isolation has spared us, at least so far, from infection. I’m told even the UN headquarters has been breached by grade-schoolers, word has it they’ve eaten every adult who was left in the building, so sad. Welcome, then, distinguished guests, all of you before me as well as those watching around the world via satellite link, welcome to Iqualuit, Nunavut.” And with that, the old Inuit chief sat down.
The floor of the Iqualuit Community Center vibrated to the thrum of the diesel generator just outside which powered the broadcast equipment and the Center, and as a result the podium migrated toward the audience whenever it was vacated. As Ban Ki-Moon approached the podium, it approached him and he caught it, pushed it to the front and held tight.
“I see a lot of somber faces,” he began. “There isn’t a person here who hasn’t been touched by this tragedy, and I am truly sorry for your losses.” He cast his eyes downward for a moment and paused. “Recent breakthroughs, though, offer some hope. What we’ve long suspected is now confirmed: hormone production at the onset of puberty is what protects us from the Martian scourge. For Martians it’s the equivalent of head lice, but for us—” He shuddered. “It ravages our children’s nervous system and turns them into ferocious cannibals.”
“This morning we’ll be hearing about new in utero hormone treatments. If they work, humans will have parasite immunity from birth.” The room erupted into applause, and Mr. Ban smiled briefly. “There may be some unwanted effects but it’s our best hope for survival as a species.”
“Later today we’ll convene a panel on new lightweight leg armor which can be pressed from natural fibers such as hemp or bamboo. This should make it accessible to just about everyone, greatly reducing injuries from small children. Finally, this evening we’ll get an update on the race for a cure. It could be just around the corner. But until that day, ladies and gentlemen,” He paused and looked around for emphasis. “Keep out of reach of children.”
4. Various and Sundry Liquids
Emmy Bly found there’s nothing like a mud-rotary drill rig working right outside one’s home to bring on headaches. Diesel exhaust permeated the house and vibrations from the drill shook dust out from between ancient floorboards; she’d had a migraine five days running.
On day six the foreman announced they’d hit a high-yield formation and would finish the next day. Emmy clutched a fistful of shawl to her breast. “Praise the Lord!”
“Got that right, sister.” Jim-Bob spat tobacco juice into her marigolds. “We’ll set casing in the morning, drop the pump, take care of a few details an’ we’re outta here.” He spat again.
The following day she watched expectantly as Jim-Bob and a young apprentice pounded casing, bang, clang, bang, but it was music to Emmy’s ears since it heralded the end of the ordeal. She watched the fuel truck leave, followed by the cube van with all their tools and spare parts. Finally the derrick came down and the outriggers went up. The apprentice left in his car and Emmy waited for Jim-Bob to drive off in the drill rig.
But he sat in the cab chewing tobacco. Emmy twisted the corner of her shawl and pursed her lips. When the apprentice returned with a take-out bag, Emmy frowned.
As the wide-eyed apprentice looked on, Jim-Bob unbolted the cap from the top of the well casing and poured a large milkshake down the well. Emmy Bly’s mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out.
She stomped out red-faced, her silent mouth working, but Jim-Bob held up a hand.
“Hang on, sister, b’fore you have a cow, I gotta show you this.” He squatted next to the casing and pointed to a bright yellow sticker with bold black lettering. “Jes’ read that, Ma’am, if you please.”
Emmy leaned over and pushed her glasses up on her nose. “My goodness, I’ve misjudged you, Jim-Bob. It clearly says ‘Shake well before using.’”