Lucky Storms

Below are the first two chapters of my upcoming novel LUCKY STORMS, to be published next year

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I rarely keep my phone in my bedroom as I sleep. Who knows when a robocaller selling a warranty for my 14-year-old Honda Element might abort a dream of me finding the Holy Grail in a thrift store? My slumber-time adventures are precious to me.

But sometimes I forget. That’s why, on this August morning, I am awoken by the ringtone of REM’s song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

Rising to answer, I stumble groggily toward the hallway so as not to wake my girlfriend River, who’s asleep next to me.

It’s a representative from WildCure Circle, an organization devoted to the care of animals in difficult situations. Ordinarily, the place accommodates a few unfortunate creatures for short stints.

But a few hours earlier, the rep tells me, a container ship spilled over 80,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay. An unprecedented thunderstorm, among the biggest and weirdest to ever hit the area in the summer, played a role in causing the disaster. Now multitudes of sea birds are in acute distress. WildCure is one of the local hubs working to save them.

The rep wants to know if River and I can help. “Of course,” I say.

A small-scale version of this disaster happened a few years ago. In response, we got motivated to be trained in cleaning oil-soaked birds. After 50 hours of instruction, we were certified. Now we’ve been asked to do what we’d hoped we’d never have to.

Ninety minutes later, River and I are working as a team at WildCure Circle, uniformed in goggles, blue lab coats, masks over our noses and mouths, and yellow rubber gloves and boots. We have joined about 40 other trained volunteers who are treating avian survivors of the oil spill. The distressed animals assail our ears with screeches and yawps. I see at least one member of numerous species: grebe, snowy egret, cormorant, mallard, tern, murre, scoter, heron, gull, coot, stilt, and plover.

Rescuers gathered them from where they were stranded on the beaches of southern Marin County, just north of San Francisco, and then brought them here to WildCure, a few miles away. The first-response team wiped the oil out of their eyes and used tubes to feed them emergency meals of liquid glucose and charcoal. Charcoal absorbs the oil they’ve swallowed. Glucose provides immediate energy and helps reverse the effects of severe dehydration.

I hold a western grebe splotched with oil while River uses Dawn dishwashing detergent and a spray hose to remove the greasy gunk from its feathers. The bird is grayish-black and white, with red eyes and a long, swan-like neck. It never stops trembling as we toil. Now and then, it tries to poke us with its long, thin beak. Though it’s at least two feet long, it doesn’t weigh much, maybe four pounds. I can control it well enough.

“My telepathic empathy is approaching a meltdown,” I say to her. “If I feel any more sorrow for these birds than I already do, my head might explode. Then my heart. Then everything else inside me. They’d all rupture in massive bursts of goo. And that would make it even tougher for the birds because the bird cleaners would have to stop what they’re doing and clean up my blood and guts and brains.”

“Yes, dear LushBuddy,” she replies as she gently scrubs the grebe’s left wing. “Me, too. But let’s not get too engrossed in the drama of our sad compassion. We’re here for the birds, not the glory of our ever-so-deep anguish.”

“Good point,” I say. “I’ve got to toughen up.”

The western grebe is our first patient. During my past hikes through Bay Area wetlands, I’ve picked up knowledge about its species. In the courtship ritual, two grebes engage in “rushing,” in which they skim across the water’s surface in synchronized motion, their long necks arched in unison. At the climax of the dance, they plunge into the depths together.

It’s an entertaining display. That’s why, just as a group of owls is called a “parliament” and a flock of crows is a “murder,” their collective term is a “water dance of western grebes.”

They’re skillful swimmers and divers, and are among the most aquatic of birds. But they don’t function gracefully on land. Their feet are located so far back on their bodies that walking is awkward for them.

And the grebes are especially helpless when smeared with oil. Their matted feathers no longer insulate them from the chilly water, and they must come ashore to keep from dying of hypothermia. Because they’re not able to hunt for fish, they’re weak from hunger. They have also swallowed oil, which means their liver, kidneys, blood, nerves, and reproductive systems may be damaged.

The grebe we are working with has at least made it this far. Rescuers on the beaches found almost as many birds dead as alive. But even if we are impeccable in our efforts to rehabilitate it, the odds of its long-term survival are less than 50 percent.

“Let’s give the grebe a name,” I say. “Maybe that’ll help it heal. I’ve heard cows that are given names by their owners are happier. They produce more milk than anonymous cows.”

“How about Gracie?” River says. “It’s a she.”

“Gracie will be her first name,” I say. “Glorious will be her surname. Gracie Glorious.”

“Try singing to Gracie Glorious and see if she likes it.”

“Have I ever sung a song to a bird before?”

“I once heard you sing to the great blue heron that sits in the marsh near our houses.”

“Ah, yes. Right. Thanks for the reminder. OK, Gracie, here you go. Let me know if this is too much.”

I sing her a song I wrote, “I Want Everybody.” It’s an understated, no-frills version.

I want to be free
in the mystery of love
I want to be wild
when the world begins again
I want to wake up and listen
Be in love with my life and death
and I want you to be there with me

I want all the children
to have enough to eat
I want all the angry men
to destroy their own pain
I want us all to be happy
and crazy and safe and real
I want everybody to be loved

I’m pleased to find that as I sing, Gracie’s agitation subsides a bit. Maybe it’s my imagination, but her eyes seem more relaxed. The black pupils in their red sclera are no longer darting around. I don’t have to use so much force to restrain her long, pointed beak from poking at us. I glide through another few rounds of “I Want Everybody.”

The singing relaxes me, too. I feel less distraught. Waves of tenderness well up in me. I seem to tap into her memories as if they are mine. Empathy? Telepathy? I’ve experienced brief episodes of intimate communion with animals in the past, but this is a new frontier for me.

I “remember” myself as a grebe spending the spring and summer at the lake up north with my mate. At the edge of the lake, I remember us building a floating nest, using bulrush as an anchor for the weeds we dragged up from the lake bottom. I laid three eggs. My mate and I kept adding new material to the nest. We took turns sitting on the eggs. Had to keep the vegetation moist.

Only two of the eggs hatched. As soon as the chicks appeared, I fed them some of my own feathers. They served as a filter for their digestive systems, minimizing parasites and keeping out fish bones.

It was hard to find enough food to feed both them and me, but my mate helped. Silverside minnows got scarce as the summer got hotter. There were very few threadfin shad. Had to eat more crayfish and clams than I’d like. I prefer the fish. But the chicks didn’t care. They were happy. We kept them safe. They rode on our backs until they were old enough. Then the four of us flew south together to the salty waters of the bay.

After we arrived, the first few days were good. Lots to eat. Carp, herring, crabs. There’s more wind here than up north, though. And every year we have done this, the salty water takes a while to get used to.

But then the blinding storm came, followed by the sludge. Slowly at first, in patches, but then a glut. We didn’t know what it was. Made no effort to avoid it. Then it was too late. It stuck to us, clung to us. Couldn’t get it off. I went ashore. Preened and preened, trying to shed it, but couldn’t.

At this point in my communion with Gracie, reliving her experiences as if they were mine, I withdraw, even as I feel guilty about leaving her. It’s painful to empathize so profoundly. I’m having my own symptoms—an obstruction in the throat, a creeping irritation on the skin of my arms, irrational claustrophobia. So I stop. “I’m sorry, Gracie,” I say.

“You still with me, Rockstar?” River asks. “Why are you sorry? You’ve got that eternal look in your eyes.”

“I’ve been having a conversation with Gracie. Actually more of a listening session. She told me, or rather showed me, what she was doing before the recent troubles. And then she shared the troubles. That hurt. I got spooked.”

“Want me to use some detergent and warm water on some of your feathers?” River teases.

“I think I’ll be OK.”

“Did Gracie reveal to you about when she and her mate did the Weed Ceremony?”

“She left that part out,” I say. “How do you know about it?”

“I’ve been tuning in to her, too. The Weed Ceremony came soon after they chose the patch of bulrushes to anchor their nest, but before they started gathering the raw material to build it. They both swooped to the bottom of the lake to snag good, strong weeds. When they resurfaced, they saluted each other with a wavy, waggly spiral dance.”

“I want to do that dance with you sometime soon.”

“Me, too. When this is all over, we’ll do our own Weed Ceremony. But let’s find a pristine lake to do it in. No oil spills.”


Suddenly, Gracie is in acute distress. The lower half of her body shakes with violent spasms. Her head twitches, too, but out of sync with the seizure below. Is one of her organs in distress? Her liver or heart? What should I do? Relax my grip or clutch tighter? Then she expels a prolonged wheezing squawk and goes limp.

“Oh, no,” River sighs. “She died.”

Tears gush from my eyes. River gently takes Gracie out of my hands and lays her down, then puts her gloved hand around my waist. She’s crying, too.

“We’ve got to keep going,” she says after a while. “Maybe we can save some of the others.”


For the next 14 hours, River and I work on swabbing the gunk from the bodies of distressed birds. We lose seven more: two western grebes, two ruddy ducks, a double-crested cormorant, and two western gulls. We preserve the lives of 23 birds, though it’s unknown whether they will continue to thrive. Every one of them receives a name from us.

The four western grebes are Rosario, Kimko, Saffron, and Esmerelda. Zephyr and Luna are the two snowy egrets. The black-necked stilts are Shango, Oshunmare, Aja, and Yemaya. The mallards are Brigid, Morrigan, and Dagda. Kanati is the Caspian tern. There are five gulls: Nujalik, Pinga, Varuna, Lakshmi, and Gonzo. The two coots are Gong Gong and Guanyin. Saga and Psyche are the snowy plovers.

We also name the seven birds who die. The western grebes are Asmara and Bethari. The ducks are Isidora and Maximiliano. The cormorant is Merindah. The gulls are Tukkutok and Kallik.

When we are long past the point of exhaustion, we return home and go to sleep. But 80 minutes later, I awake from a dream.

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River and I are professional dreamers. When we go to sleep, we go to work. Since I was 15 years old, I have remembered and recorded an average of 3.1 oneiric phenomena per night. River launched her dream career at age five, but is 10 years younger than I. Her average is 2.5.

I don’t mean to sound pretentious when I use the term “oneiric phenomena” instead of “dreams.” More on this subject later, but the fact is the splendorous adventures that unfold while I sleep come in a wide array of genres. To call all them “dreams” isn’t accurate.

For convenience and more elegant language, I will use the Polish word marzenie (plural marzenia) instead of “oneiric phenomena.” Again, more on this later.

All my marzenia are numbered and titled and organized to facilitate my research into their revelations.

In the early years of my catalog, I noted the date of each marzenie using the standard calendar. But since the late 20th century, my method has changed.

For my purposes, each “Verse” is a 24-hour period that begins at sunset and extends to the next sunset. I reckon the year not according to the time since Christ’s birth, but since what I regard as the beginning of the Sixth Mass Extinction Event. Right now, we are in Year 24.

In case you haven’t heard: A majority of biologists suspect we are in the early stages of that environmental calamity. It’s the first in 66 million years. Back then, 76 percent of the Earth’s species died off after an asteroid crashed into the sea near the Yucatán Peninsula.

Here’s the first marzenie I had on the night after our stint at the WildCure Circle. I tell it in the present tense, as a dream mentor taught me to do many years ago.

Marzenie #61,663
The Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers
Year 24, Verse 102 of the Sixth Mass Extinction

In my świadomy marzenie, my lucid dream, River and I are together, but we are not human beings. We are ivory-billed woodpeckers who can think and talk.

I call her Melody Drummer, and she calls me Harmony Drummer. These days we live in Florida, near the swampy Choctawhatchee River. It’s our favorite river ever, and we have seen a few in our time. It’s a holy river! A lucky river, we hope!

Winding, maze-like tributaries. Vast floodplain. In the mornings, rising mist and golden light. Kaleidoscopic mosaics of sycamore bark. Winged maple seeds swirling their red twists as they fall slowly. Alligators are fun to watch, and they can’t snag us. So many delights: bear, deer, squirrels, foxes, tortoises, vireos, bitterns, turkeys.

We live in a bald cypress tree. It is thick and strong and tall. We built our nest in a cavity high in the trunk. Hungry raccoons and possums find it almost impossible to reach us here.

The mood is swampy even when it’s cool. The air is often heavy and humid.

Melody Drummer and I have spectacular wingspans, huskier than all the other woodpeckers. Our long beveled beaks climax in sharp chiseled tips. Sturdy and relentless! Our glossy feathers are mostly black, but with two lightning bolts down our backs and a white splash on our wings. The backs of our crowns are bright red. Her eyes are brilliant gold. Piercing, yet genial. She says mine are like that, too.

At the top of her lively head is a flashy red tuft, the same as the mark on my crown. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. For most of our kind, only we males have the scarlet splash. Why is she such a miracle? A fine riddle.

We talk to each other in thousands of codes: voice, touch, breath, rat-a-tat-tats, even thoughts. I work for Melody Drummer, and she works for me. We’ve been together for how long now? Many years. I lost count.

We are virtuoso drummers. Our cadences are crisp and robust. We drill and probe, poke and delve, thump and rummage, always digging. What food lies beneath the bark, inside the tree? We gouge, scoop, and burrow. Where are the larvae, termites, spiders, pine aphids, centipedes, ants? We extract them.

Pecans, hickory nots, poison ivy seeds, and hackberries are easier to break, but our bills are useful for those, too.

Feeding is not the only reason we rap and tap and jab. We do it for the music. We do it to show who we are. And we do it as a charm and conjuration—to call down the lightning.

That’s our task right now. A blustery tempest is nigh. Thunder sputters and rain flurries. We have arrived at our sacrificial pine tree and are beating out codes to summon lightning spears from the dusky clouds. Once the fire strikes, after the tree expires, wood-boring beetles will invade and settle in droves. And we will come to feast on their larvae.

We need more nourishment! That’s the raw truth. Soon it will be time to lay our yearly eggs. If we have five, our hope, we will have to work nonstop to feed the hatchlings. They will be voracious. Melody Drummer and I will scramble to get them enough meals, even as we provide for ourselves.

It will be a rough job. But we are resolved to do it. We need all the ivory-billed woodpeckers we can get. Our kind is scarce and getting scarcer. Humans make it hard for us. Invaders! Conquerors!

They drain the wetlands and hack down the forests. They steal wood, sterilize land, and contrive their roads and buildings. Why do they use so much violence and poison? Don’t their infections hurt them, too? Over the years, Melody Drummer and I have fled other homelands when the chainsaws and backhoes and bulldozers infested the place.

But our story is even harsher than that. We ivory-billed souls have always been too majestic for our own good. Once upon a time, when our number was much larger, humans called us the “Grail Bird” and “Lord God Bird.” They hunted us. Wore ornaments made of our beaks and feathers and claws. Some even buried our corpses with their dead, trusting our woodpecker souls to transport their kin’s souls to the next world.

That era has passed. There are no longer enough of us for the humans to stalk. Now they call us the “Ghost Bird.” Do we still exist? Many of them think we have all vanished.

But forget that sadness for now. It’s time for Melody Drummer and me to cast our spell. The first flash of lightning slashed through the sky moments ago. We will summon the next one, or maybe the one after that—command it to hurl itself down here to kindle our pine tree.

“You start,” I tell Melody Drummer with my taps and beats. “You are the expert starter.”

“Thwack crack smack bash,” she taps out in a code the heavens understand. “Thwack crack smackle bash . . . sharp spark splash bright . . . sharp spark splashy bright.”

“Chock knock jack thump,” I rat-a-tat. “Chockle knockle jackle thump . . . trigger flame zap hammer . . . trigger flame spike zap hammer.”

“Slap snap gap jab,” she continues. “Slappy snappy gappy jab . . . glimmer blaze combust ignite . . . shimmer braise gold gust excite.”

“Slammer clamor crammer rammer,” I drum. “Slammer bammer glamour scrammer . . . tinder tender blunder splendor . . . tinder tender wonder splendor.”

Then Melody Drummer and I synchronize our rhythmic invocation. “Bang whacker wizard wallop . . . bump thump throb jolt . . . pound stab bust jam . . . glare gash scream capture . . . bang hacker quiver wallop . . . crump jump throb molt . . . ground stab flushed wham . . . flare flash beam rupture.”

Here it comes. I can feel it! We fly free of the pine to give the dark heavens all the room they need. And then ZOOM! CRACKLE! BLAST! IGNITE!


I can almost taste the larvae of jewel beetles, long-horned beetles, and ambrosia beetles. Creamy, greasy, tart. Yum. It will take a while, but sooner or later, they will be living here in the bark.