The Fresco (Book Excerpt)
by Sheri S. Tepper
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Things That Go Bump in the Night
Along the Oregon coast an arm of the Pacific shushes softly against rocky
shores. Above the waves, dripping silver in the moonlight, old trees, giant
trees, few now, thrust their heads among low clouds, the moss thick upon their
boles and shadow deep around their roots. In these woods nights are quiet, save
for the questing hoot of an owl, the satin stroke of fur against a twig, the
tick and rasp of small claws climbing up, clambering down. In these woods, bear
is the big boy, the top of the chain, but even he goes quietly and mostly by
day. It is a place of mosses and liverworts and ferns, of filmy green that
curtains the branches and cushions the soil, a wet place, a still place.
A place in which something new is happening. If there were eyes to see, they
might make out a bear-sized shadow, agile as a squirrel, puckering the quiet
like an opening zipper, rrrrip up, rrrrip down, high into the trees then down
again, disappearing into mist. Silence intervenes, then another seam is ripped
softly on one side, then on the other, followed by new silences. Whatever these
climbers are, there are more than a few of them.
The owl opens his eyes wide and turns his head backwards, staring at the
surrounding shades. Something new, something strange, something to make a
hunter curious. When the next sound comes, he launches himself into the air,
swerving silently around the huge trunks, as he does when he hunts mice or
voles or small birds, following the pucker of individual tics to its lively
source, exploring into his life's darkness. What he finds is nothing he might
have imagined, and a few moments later his bloody feathers float down to be
followed by another sound, like a satisfied sigh.
Near the Mexican border, rocky canyons cleave the mountains, laying them
aside like broken wedges of gray cheese furred with a dark mold of pinon and
juniper that sheds hard shadows on moon glazed stone, etched lithographs in
gray and black, taupe and silver.
Beneath feathery chamisa a rattlesnake flicks his tongue, following a scent.
Along a precarious rock ledge a ring-tailed cat strolls, nose snuffling the
cracks. At the base of the stone a peccary trots along familiar foot traits,
toward the toes of a higher cliff where a seeping spring gathers in a rocky
goblet. In the desert, sounds are dry and rattling: pebbles toed into cracks,
hoofs tac-tacking on stone, the serpent rattle warning the wild pig to veer
away, which she does with a grunt to the tribe behind her. From the rocky scarp
the ringtailed cat hears the whole population of the desert pass about its
business in the canyon below.
A new sound comes to this place, too. High in the air, a chuff, chuff,
chuff, most like the wings of a monstrous crow, crisp and powerful, enginelike
in their regularity. Then a cry, eerie and utterly alien, not from any native
bird ever heard in this place.
The peccary freezes in place. The ring-tailed cat leaps into the nearest
crevice. Only the rattler does not hear, does not care. For the others, staying
frozen in place seems the appropriate and prudent thing to do as the chuff,
chuff, chuff moves overhead, another cry and an answer from places east, and
west, and north as well. The aerial hunter is not alone, and its screams fade
into the distance, the echoes still, and the canyon comes quiet again.
And farther south and east, along the gulf, in the wetland that breeds the
livelihood of the sea, in the mangrove swamps, the cypress bogs, the
moss-lapped, vine-twined, sawgrass-grown, reptile-ridden mudflats, night sounds
Copyright© 2002, HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. This excerpt has been provided by HarperCollins and printed with their permission.