• Kevin O'Keefe

Iron Shaggy (opening chapters of a "cli-fi" novel)

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

Chapter 1

March 2021

The Clan were on the move. Once a generation they had to return to a cave on the edge of the Adirondacks State Park to perform a sacred ritual. Ton-ton the matriarch led them. They walked in a single-file line. Most of their steps stayed on or near the deer trail they followed. The enormous girth of their bodies snapped back tree limbs and occasionally broke them. It was late in the month that the “smooth-skins” call March. Snow fell lightly. A crescent moon was setting behind the mountains. Wind swirled. Snow danced horizontally before settling down on the ground, not in the late winter cliche of a blanket, but as if the snow itself was drifting off to sleep.

The unspoken understanding within the Clan was that this was the perfect time to move as a group from Margery’s farm where they wintered. All major decisions were made by Ton-ton the matriarch and they were rarely questioned by the other members.

Hairy mammoths could run up to twenty-five miles per hour if properly motivated but rarely choose to do so. Their pace was more of a steady, nearly silent lumber. When you are the largest terrestrial animal in the hemisphere you take your time.

As the Clan entered a meadow the distant call of a howling-black-nose stopped them in their tracks. All trunks went up to smell what they couldn’t see. That first call was answered by another approximately half a mile away. They knew that the howling-black-nose were on both ridge-lines high up above them. It was not a cause for alarm, yet. Coyotes, even hungry ones (and at that time of the year they were all hungry) would never try to take down an adult mammoth but if working as team they were able to separate one vulnerable member from the Clan, and attack it, a kill might sustain their entire pack for weeks.

Iron Shaggy - the youngest male member of the Clan moved up in the line to just behind Ton-ton. He was about to complete his third full winter. It would take seven more circles around the sun before he was considered an adult in the Clan. If the howling-black-nose attacked he would braid his trunk onto Ton-ton’s tail and she would act as a battering ram and body guard.

First light became visible in the eastern sky behind them. After walking all night, they arrived at the covered entrance of Crism’s cave. It was still snowing, heavier now, and up to their ankles. These woods were quieter than any of them could recall. The coyote pack was behind them and out of range but the Clan knew they would have to pass through howling-black-nose territory to return to Margery’s farm.

After exchanging ear flaps Ton-ton and Kurn wedged their heads into the small spaces on either side of the enormous boulder that blocked the cave’s entrance. Ton-ton snorted and she and Kurn began to lever their heads and trunks to bear on the boulder. Their knees bent and shook, nearly buckling under the strain. The giant pads of their feet flexed and toe nails dug in—like studs on snow tires. They slipped, slid, and then re-gripped and pushed harder. The other adults started to pull with their trunks or wedged their tusks until, working together, five of them rolled aside the giant boulder. A blast of cool stale air with a hint of something dead wafted from the open mouth of the cave. The protestations of a porcupine startled Ton-ton. The little creature hobbled, drunk with sleep, out of the cave, and began a search for new lodgings.

Ton-ton shook her head once and went in alone, squeezing through the entryway. Aside from Na-trusk — the male patriarch who was always nearby — she was the eldest member of the Clan. It was quite the magic trick to make a three-ton hairy mammoth disappear into the dark but Crism’s cave was known for more than just magic. After a short walk Ton-ton’s eyes adjusted and she entered a large rock cathedral. She paused to take in the majesty of Domed Rock (as they referred to it). It was the main theater inside Crism’s cave and was the Clan’s holiest of holies.

There was a pile of enormous mammoth bones on a flat slab of garnet in the center of the cave. Mammoth legend had it that the Great Spirit made this cave at the beginning of time so that mammoths would always have a sanctuary. With her trunk working like a broom Ton-ton brushed aside a few small stones and then hoovered loudly out of her trunk to blow the accumulated dust off the ivory colored skull of Crism-the-White.

Crism-the-White, the Anointed One, the foretold one, the albino mammoth who, 10,000 years ago, taught the ancestors of the Clan the secret song-cycle of shadow-making. All night, as the Clan walked they sang parts of the cycle in a register so low no smooth skin could hear it. At least two of them always sang for the others. It was the sub-sonic vibration of their song-cycle that made them invisible to smooth-skins. Crism's discovery of the song-cycle and the power it gave the Clan to hide in the shadows allowed them to survive into 2020s. His teachings and sacrifice live on in through them.

Ton-ton trumpeted and went on for minutes until even the mammoths couldn’t hear it. A moment after the silence Hinton, next to Ton-ton the eldest female rumbled into Domed Rock taking her place in next to Ton-ton in the center of the stone platform. From her cheeks she dropped a few dozen black walnuts still in their shells. Ton-ton nimbly gathered them and crushed them with her fore-foot. The six other members of the Clan entered in a formal procession. They made a half circle around the stone platform. Ton-ton and Hinton watched from atop the altar in the center. Kurn rumbled her lowest tone. Following this signal the others stopped as one and faced their heads towards the raised altar where Ton-ton and Hinton stood.

Then Ton-ton the matriarch, working with her trunk rolled the skull of Crism-the-White in black walnut oil. With the prehensile “fingers” of her trunk she examined and traced each and every nook and cranny of the skull, lingering in the eye sockets and holes for the tusks. She took in that unique smell and with it a trace of the wisdom of Crism-the-White. Ton-ton's temporal glands streamed and her breath came out in short bursts. Encircling the skull with her trunk she lifted it up high so the others could see it. Then she raised her girth onto two fore-feet and trumpeted. Her scream reverberating loudly off the walls of the cave. The entire Clan became agitated and shuffled quickly from side to side, occasionally bouncing off of one another while still remaining sensitive enough not to knock over the smaller members — like Iron Shaggy.

Ton-ton had survived sixty-two winters. Now that she and the others had connected to their shared past she rolled her eyes back into her head gazing into the future. Her obligation, and the reason for this rare trip was to pass the care for the skull of Crism-the-White to the next linage holder, the next matriarch. Whomever Ton-ton chose would be the new matriarch and lead the Clan when it was Ton-ton’s choice to pass into forever-time.

Ton-ton, still carrying the skull, swept past her sisters Kurn and Hinton and put the skull directly in front of Devalar. She was significantly younger than the other two, but it was a wise choice and even Kurn tilted her head and rhythmically flapped her ears to acknowledge that the best decision had been made for the Clan. Devalar would make a good matriarch. She was the largest female, almost as big as Na-trusk. She was clear-headed, strong and fearless, and she sang the song-cycle well. Devalar cradled, sniffed and fondled the bleached white skull of Crism. She rose up on two fore-feet and trumpeted accepting responsibility for leadership of the Clan when Ton-ton's time had passed. Then Devalar passed enormous skull along to the next in the circle. As each member of the Clan held the skull they lifted one leg in the air and paused. They were listening to the spirit-song of Crism-the-White which they felt still resonating in the skull. By the end of the ceremony they would all know the newest installment of the great song-cycle and their parts to sing in it.

Chapter 2

A massive Nor’easter barreled up the coast, engulfing much of the East seaboard of the United States in white-out conditions. Sheriff Kyle McCain drove his police cruiser east on Route 28 and passed a lone snowplow. “It’s possible,” he thought, “that we’re the only vehicles on the roads in the entire western half of the Adirondack State Park.”

McCain’s twelve-hour shift from 7pm to 7am was filled with a vibrational numbing pain down his left leg. His doctor said it was sciatica. A word new to Kyle, although “pain-in-the-ass” was a term with which he was quite familiar. It felt as if a hot poker shot electricity from his butt to foot. Any way he tried shifting in the driver’s seat of the Ford cruiser couldn’t stop it completely. Even gently rocking his pelvis did nothing to relieve the bolt of pain needling its way down the underside of his leg. He bit an Oxycontin pill approximately in half and let the rest of it fall back into the prescription bottle he’d taken off some Canadian kid on a traffic stop last month. He washed it down with some Red Bull.

In high school Kyle was the point guard on the basketball team who shot the lights out or could blow by most any defender. His career peaked in senior year when his team—the Lake Placid Blue Bombers won the NY State high school championship. He was mature enough at that age to know that he was not suited to a college lifestyle and too small to play Division 1 basketball.

Kyle loved the Adirondacks, loved the wilderness, loved maple cream, camping, kayaking and white water rafting but mostly he loved the emptiness, especially after the snow geese (a.k.a. the summer people) fled. He loved Labor Day to Memorial Day. Loved Halloween. Loved the crisp air on a winter’s morning and the slant of autumn light. Loved the smell of pine, hemlock, paper birch, loved these mountains, their history, these people. He drifted for a few years, working construction in Arizona, then a stint on a fishing boat in Alaska, finally ended up driving a school bus in Miami. He could be reckless in choosing acquaintances and paid a high price.

One day while making the rounds of dropping off kids in their Coral Cables neighborhood two of his pals—Troy and Utah George drove by on their Kawasaki motorcycles. Kyle waved and the boys executed quick and illegal U-turns. The Kawasaki’s high whining engines made it impossible for the kids to ignore. Just to hassle their buddy they drove right up along side the bus on both sides, as if a police escort. Utah George gave the kids the finger. The kids exploded with joy and insult. Pretty much the whole bus was screaming out the windows and reciprocating with a bunch of vigorous hand signals. This banter went on for three or four stops despite Kyle shouting at the kids to, “Settle down back there.”

At each stop Kyle dutifully put on the bus’s red flashers, and extended the stop sign and the moveable gate in front of the bus. He waited longer then needed to make sure every kid was safe to the sidewalk or up their driveway before moving along. The next to last stop of the day was for a dopey fourth grader named Victor. He wasn’t Kyle’s most well-liked passenger but Kyle liked to even the playing field for the chubby victim of bullying whenever and however he could. So he accepted Victor’s request by dropping him a few blocks before his house, across from the corner candy store, rather then at his home as prescribed.

Just then Utah George popped the Kawasaki up on one wheel and hit the gas. The front wheel of the motorcycle blocked his view from Victor who crossed in front of the bus to purchase a candy bar at the store. After three weeks in a coma Victor parents took him off life-support.

After being peeled off the pavement Utah George went to prison for three years for unintentional vehicular manslaughter. Kyle got a two-year probation and lost his job.

From that disaster Kyle drifted downward into a drug and alcohol fueled depression. He emerged broken and battered at his family’s home in Old Forge, NY six months later. He went to a few AA meetings and sobered up. Then he surprised his whole family by ignoring his father’s entreaties to take over his plumbing business, instead he enrolled in the police academy.

Even to Kyle becoming a law enforcement officer seemed out of character. As he reflected on this choice after years on the force he traced it back to his father and his high school basketball coach. Both men led by quiet example. His father - Earl was an engineer who plumbed. He loved systems and logic and problem solving. He thought about things, every thing, then he acted decisively. When he was wrong he’d backtrack and analyze where his idea went wonky and figure out another way to get it back on track.

While some youth basketball coaches demanded adherence to their style of play and rigid structure Coach Anthony made basketball fun by designing games using the boys’ natural competitive instincts and in the process—growing boys into young men of character. Coach A made Kyle want to play better, train harder, push himself further and work with others for the greater good. Until Kyle tried out for and made the cut onto the high school basketball team he feared, or maybe tolerated, authority figures. Coach A was fair and he cared, really cared. He knew what his role was in a young man’s life and what lessons could and could not be learned in basketball. That perspective went a long way in Kyle’s book.

Kyle embraced the structure and formality of police work as if born into it. He loved the routine, the black and white of it, the certainty. His gift as a cop was to peer into people’s lives at their very worst moments and act his very best. One innate skill he had was using his body language to deescalate situations. It was almost magic to see the way he could stumble upon a bad situation and find a good resolution. He had the rare ability to get calmer, slower, more thoughtful in stressful circumstances. It was like he was back on the basketball court again and (as the saying goes), “The game slowed down for him.” His easy fluid manner and natural athletic ability made him seem like he was always moving more efficiently than the others — like the difference between watching a domestic animal run versus something wild. Kyle moved though his life with the efficiency of effort that reminded many of his playground nickname on the basketball court - The Conductor.

Over the course of a nearly thirty-year police career he’d seen his share of bloodshed, but it was rarely human, mostly roadkills. He got a few burglaries, mainly summer places, and usually it was easy to track the poor white trash back to their opioid den. They were not criminal masterminds and even opened their doors to his soft knock. Then they would stupidly let him in to look around, answer his polite questions and boom they were in bracelets before coming down from their buzz.

There was a few pedestrian aspects of the job like waiting with the cruiser lights on to slow down cars around the summer construction sites. Sometimes he’d keep a crime novel on his lap and lose himself in the crackling dialogue of Elmore Leonard or the legal cat-and-mouse of Scott Turow. Vigilance wore on him at times. And he never got used to the way people projected so many assumptions onto him because of the uniform. Weekends he’d dole out speeding tickets, mostly to city folk flying through his sleepy territory of upstate NY as fast as they could in order to get to points beyond.

Domestic calls were the ones Kyle dreaded and yet, that was what seemed to get some couples through the long winters up here. Inevitably one of them was drunk or high and Kyle had to wade through the effluence of he said/she said, or attempt to break through the denial of what he did and how he was sure she provoked it, or the other way around. “Is there some place else you can sleep tonight Miss? What about you pal, can you take off for a few days maybe get some rest and good food? Lay off the booze for a day or two and come back fresh, work this thing out? You got little ones here. Don’t you owe them that much?” Most times it was the equivalent of fixing the whistle on a train wreck. If the women were young he’d want to take care of them, even pay for their motel, but of course that was way above the call of duty, maybe even get him a reprimand.

2021 was the coldest winter on record in the Adirondacks of NY State. Weather and hunting was all people up here could talk about, but that year was even more so. It was the hottest year on record and that was followed by the coldest winter. People said the extremes of this trend would continue.

Kyle loved the snap, crackle and pop of extra cold mornings. Coming home he’d become aware of the torture his boots seemed to inflict on the snow crystals. If he stayed out long his entire mustache would grow misty icicles then drip down his shirt with the aid of the car heater or his soapstone fireplace. When exiting his home or the cruiser and the cold air hit his lungs he enjoyed the bracing tingle. It made him feel alive.

Chapter 3

Recently, the term “storm of the century” had to be reduced to “storm of the decade” because there were so many of them in the early 2020s. In the typical long winters that could last 7-8 months around the ‘Dacks people tended to speak in shorthand about the cold. The three distinct and only terms one needed were cold, really cold, and really friggin’ cold. The night of this storm it was RFC, as Calvin Crenshaw would say. It was snowing, again, actually it was a white-out blizzard. It was late March and this was just the latest and longest of the storms they’d endured.

That suited Calvin Crenshaw just fine. Bad weather was good for business. He got paid $15.85 per hour for snowplowing in his own truck. It was a forest green 1999 Hummer with an adjustable snowplow in front. The one he called,“The Original Green Monster and fuck any Red Sox fan who disagreed.” First on Route 28, and then numerous side roads he’d plunge through the night or for as long as it snowed. The snow was coming down, “As thick as a bucket of dicks,” as he liked to say, though more for how it sounded than any sense it might make. This winter he was liable to make as much bank as he needed for the whole year just by plowing. He’d supplement with whatever veggies he’d could grow in the 8-week season, all the fresh walleye, pike and trout he could freeze, and in the fall a buck or two. Calvin’s friends were fond of saying, "When the end of the world comes I'm moving over to Cal's and live off his store house of food."

As he drove Cal was half-listening to a Christian radio station,“Are you waiting for a miracle? Stop waiting. You are the miracle you’ve been waiting for. God doesn’t want you to believe in the ‘theory’ of climate change. God doesn't want you to believe in the ‘theory’ of evolution. God wants you to believe the fact of the Bible. A book that you can hold in the palm of your hand, see with your own two eyes, and cherish with all your heart. We’ll pause here a moment, let you reflect, and be right back to take your questions and comments. Whether you are sinning or praising there is nothing that we have to fear at the feet of the Lord. This is WCTL at 107.7 on your FM dial and it’s 3:29 am in Lake Placid, NY.”

The best part about being the town’s designated snow plow was not having a boss sniffing over his shoulder. As long as the road was plowed and people could get to work then everybody was satisfied. Not having any direct supervision meant that Calvin could supplement his Thermos of hot Nescafe with as much Wild Turkey as he pleased. It helped pass the wee hours. The current problem (or situation as he preferred to call it) was that the small red Thermos cup had slipped out of his hand and into the passenger wheel well. He waited for a long straightway and scooted over to sit on the console between the seats so that he could reach for the cup with one hand while keeping the other on the steering wheel. Just as he ducked his head below the dash he saw another car coming from the other direction. Cal jumped back to his side of the seat. As he saw the oncoming lights he thought himself, That guy must be crazy to be out in this kind of weather. When the car passed he saw that it was the Sheriff Kyle McCain.

Cal waved his nonchalant, municipal-brotherhood, everything-is-AOK-wave as the sheriff passed. Calvin checked the rear-view mirror a few times and waited a good three minutes. Making sure this time there was no one coming in either direction he slid over and retrieved his Thermos cup. Balancing the cup between his legs he filled it with coffee and added, “A little dab’ll do ya.”

He looked up just in time to see the hind end of a very large mammal streak across the headlights. Another second and it would have been on the hood, or worse, sliding into his chest. He instinctively turned left to avoid hitting the animal. That was when the right front edge of the plow clipped a pair of second animals. Something else must have been chasing or running after the first one. Could have been moose, he supposed. But the first one was huge and hairy. After processing the image for a second he concluded that the second ones were coyotes. It all happened so fast. He couldn’t be certain but the first one looked like a…just then his plow went into a spin cycle on black ice. Sheriff McCain would later estimate that the truck was going sixty miles per hour at the instant that the coyotes were obliterated. Parts of them would be found the next day up to a tenth of a mile away by a couple of cross-country skiers.

Calvin’s Hummer did a 180, 360, 540, 720 and 900 before smashing into the guardrail on the driver’s side. The Hummer had no side air bags. Cal’s first instinct on coming to a rest was to make sure his coffee and bourbon didn’t spill. His pants looked like he pissed himself. He was glad none of the guys from the municipal garage were around to razz him. The driver’s side door was wedged against the guardrail. Other people may have opted to exit the vehicle through the passenger side door. Call it panic or shock but Calvin rolled down the window in order to get out through the driver’s side window, feet first. As he dropped down he didn’t factor in that the truck was on the edge of a very steep embankment. Just as he was congratulating himself for having survived the accident he tumbled ass over tea kettle down the embankment. The doctor told him later he broke three ribs. “Probably when I bounced off that birch tree.” A large boulder at the bottom of the hill lacerated his forehead. He needed three staples and twenty-seven stitches. The doctor who sewed him up ribbed Calvin, “That gash will keep you out of beauty contests for six months.”

(This novel continues as Kyle and Calvin begin a quest for the identity of the Clan of nine mammoths. Iron Shaggy becomes an unlikely and hesitant religious cult leader for a world of smooth-skins thrown into turmoil because a climate in collapse. )

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