Saturn’s Picnic

By Mike Allen
Illustration by Pete Soloway

The basalt column supporting this parking lot slants backwards, creating a slight fold between itself and the mountain behind it. The column slopes up toward a really breathtaking view of the Columbia. Even in the damp dead of winter, every day in the gorge has its high times.

After admiring the view, I put on my pony costume and we all head west on an old road bed descending under a dense canopy of old growth. We follow the road up to the left, away from I-84, and climb a bit before making a quick right onto a path marked simply “Trail,” splash through a muddy brook, and begin to climb in earnest. This kid is heavy.

A downed tree crosses the path with a foothold axed into the top. It points straight down a hillside slick with sword fern and Mahonia nervosa, like a chute with no ladder. We climb over and walk a few score more before we encounter another. Then another and another. The deeper we go, the thicker the boles get. I stop trusting my footing with my load—“Thirty-five pounds of the most precious thing I’ve got,” I’ll joke later—and throw myself upon the trunks, shimmying around like a mounting bear. Arriving at a place where a wide, shallow ravine runs down the hillside, I see that far from getting better, the situation deteriorates. Tree after tree after tree, five feet wide—maybe bigger—far too big to shimmy, block the path. I despair.

“What do you guys wanna do? It doesn’t look like it gets any better.”

Defer, defer, defer. Let the process work it out, right? Should I take the fall for this disaster of a trail?

Like a pinball, the question bounces from each of the others right back to me. I look at the tree just ahead, almost as tall as me, and at the increasing slope of the hillside.

“Okay, maybe we go back to that old road bed and walk farther up that. Maybe that would be cool.”

Hah!

When we were children, the ordeal of post-exposure rabies prophylactic was a favorite horror story: Three weeks of daily abdominal injections. Apparently, there is some lag time between exposure to rabies and full-on infection. This is because rabies only replicates when it reaches the brain. Once there, the virus transforms its host into a vector by initiating a slew of psycho and physiological expressions. The virus being transmitted by saliva, saliva production is increased, resulting in the “foaming at the mouth” commonly associated with mad dogs and, analogously, mad or vehemently disputatious humans. Preventing dilution of the saliva-cum-befoulment, the vector develops an intense aversion to drinking water, despite its intense thirst. The primary symptom though, from which the virus derives its name, is the fury. To be a good vector, you need to bite. Fortunately, rabies in humans is rare throughout the world, and particularly rare in the first world.

In the first world, we are in control of ourselves, if not our destinies, at least our minds. Oh! Talk to me about advertising, religion and the soft power of culture. But, when I was waiting for my wife to finish incubating our blastocyst, embryo, fetus, baby, she was advised not to clean the litter box. No problem there, she never touched it anyway.

Toxoplasmosis is apparently potentially fatal to a developing fetus, but is usually asymptomatic in full-born people. That’s the simplification of which I was assured.

Saturn Devouring His Son by Peter Paul Rubens. Digitally vandalized by Pete Soloway

Saturn Devouring His Son by Peter Paul Rubens. Digitally vandalized by Pete Soloway

 

The mood shifts as we trundle back down the slope. Should I have been more decisive? I wonder what the women, who include my wife, mother of the jockey-on-my-back, think about that display of assertiveness? Probably not much. That was abysmal.

We come to a tree, everyone climbs over. I get down on my hands and knees and start to climb under.

“Whoa! Mike, Mike!”

“Careful! Mike.”

“Holy shit, you almost hit her in the head.”

“Oh, fuck, sorry.”

We come along to the ravine above the muddy brook. Something’s definitely changed. I’ll hang back here and follow along, gauge the situation. This trail looks steep and narrow and slick. The edge sort of rounds off into the ravine. Brooke, the woman, falls back and asks me some questions.

“So, how’s fatherhood treating you?”

“What?”

“Fatherhood?”

“Oh, um, fine. Just fine, I guess…lots of work, ha ha.”

Looking not at her, but at the edge. I am fucking shaking. Please, girl, don’t feel Daddy shake.

“I wanna walk!”

“No, it’s okay, Daddy’s gonna get you down from here.”

“But I don’t want to go (fall?) down there, I wanna get out and walk!”

Toxoplasma gondii does indeed infect (and affect) the adult human mind. Toxoplasmosis infection and neuroticism, promiscuity, and suicide are all positively correlated. But does the protozoan harm with intent? Can a protozoan be said to intend harm upon the rat whose brain it perverts to respond sexually to the scent of cat urine? No, it hasn’t a grain of intention because it’s not sentient; it has simply evolved to make its way into a cat’s gut to finish its life cycle. Does it have a biologically driven, evolved imperative to harm human beings? Maybe. But just as likely it has the ability to infect a brain, so why not? If you were a non-sentient, amoral organism, and you just happened to be passing through the water works with the means to alter everyone’s brain chemistry, why not?

My wife is suddenly, inexplicably, next to me.

“Did you see the cut on her leg?”

“Mmm, no. Why, is it bad?

“Kind of.”

“Did I do it going under the tree?”

“I don’t think so. Did you cut her going under the tree?”

“What? Cut—?” On her leg?

How did that happen? Are you suggesting that I did that? How would I do that? And while we’re on the subject, do you think my love for the child…too much? Is it untoward? Because here’s the thing that no one ever tells you about having children (and I’m pretty sure, though not absolutely positive, that this isn’t just me): parental love is intensely physical. The way they smell, the feel of their skin, the glint in their eyes, it took me by surprise. You might catch me biting my lips, sucking them both into my mouth and biting them, to suppress my desire to devour my own spawn. Like a mammal possessed by rabies.

I now know why I can’t find the right angle to human congress. They suspect I’m taking little tastes. That’s why no one will come at me straight. They want to make sure I don’t just pull my knife out right here and take a little sliver, like a quavering little slice of barely warm raw veal, and pop it right into my mouth. Have I ever done that? Of course not.

That’s ridiculous. Perhaps they’re just trying to gauge me: how I act with the child, how much care I take. And how much care do I take? As much as I should? Well I’m not fucking eating her. I’m not making little cuts in her leg and sucking the blood out. But how would that…?

I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to get into their minds. They think that they’re in control. What an opportunity, they underestimate me and overestimate themselves. Nobody is in control of themselves. I walk faster and catch up with Bruce. How to start?

“So, Bruce. You know how whenever you take a leak, the last couple of drops always fall back in your pants?”

“Um, no.”

Back at the parking lot with the view, I unbuckle all eight straps which held the child to me, placing her finally between our two cars. A car comes up the drive. I have to piss. I walk to the lane and make a wide circle around my daughter, eyeing the vehicle. Teenagers. I’d just take her with me, leave her there on my back, but then they might think I was going to eat a little bit.

“Can I leave her here?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“Just…”

I walk to the dried-piss-yellow bunker, lock the door, look into the hole, and fall to my knees. I don’t dare touch the putrid plastic crown in the floor, but looking at the back I can see the biohazardous brown streak, racing to the bottom, possibly dripping. And I retch, retch, retch. Nothing. A squirt of hand sanitizer promises clean living. I use it, but I don’t trust it.

A man in the throes of rabies reacts viscerally to the sight of water. Ingestion causes him to retch and gag as if he’s swallowed a bitter poison. Analogous to the hungry person, he is no longer in control of his faculties. Like rabies, hunger overthrows the infected body. Hunger orchestrates its own survival, at odds with that of hungry body.

“Can you drive us there?”

“Yeah, why?”

I don’t think I can trust myself to drive because, as you may have heard, there are no accidents, only vicious intentions burbling below the conscious will, and I have no idea what lurks down there.

“Do you think it will be open?”

“I don’t know, I don’t have any way of knowing until we get there.”

“What are we going to do if it’s closed?”

“Go somewhere else.”

Child starts crying again. She can feel the tension filling the tiny cab. Holding her hand, I crack the window nearest me, and that next to her. Hopefully, the fresh air off the river can cool my mind, can cool my vibrating chest. How far down can I wind it, without giving myself away? Myself? No, the whirring behind my eyes. When you’re in the grip of something, the best thing to do is to be still, and wait.

Or work. We exit, turnabout, drive back east and exit again. Everybody turns right here, away from the highway, to climb upstream into the mountains. We turn left and go under the tracks, the train tearing by above. The thump thump, thump thump of…what? The flexing of the deck? The wheels transitioning from one section of track to another? A loose tie spike is somehow comforting in its rhythm compared to the random screech of hot steel on steel.

We park just on the other side of the tracks. Miraculously, the child is sleeping. We get out and survey the scene. Perfect tranquility. The highway provides so much white noise, the surprising and subtle sounds of the natural world are either drowned, or sucked into the sonic melee. Before us, the Columbia lies slack and wide before the dam. The rest pull up. I just get to work.

When working, food work is my work, all questions have an answer:

In what order should I do things?

In the order that allows the maximum possible number of tasks to be performed simultaneously.

What should I do next?

The very next thing that needs doing.

How should I do things?

In the very best way you know how.

Where should I wash my hands?

…?

My hands are dirty. Everyone must know I’m infected—what they don’t know is that they’re infected too.

When measured by number of cells, we are less than 10 percent ourselves. The average human gut houses, nurtures, incubates about 100 trillion microbes, ten times more cells than compose the human body. Until recently, it was assumed that they kept to themselves, digesting food, reproducing, secreting metabolic byproducts; that the mind, miraculously somehow, was insulated from the influence of the stomach. Experiments on rodents (whose brains are apparently quite similar to ours), which involved altering the levels and types of bacteria in the gut, produced surprisingly dramatic results. In abstract, a nervous mouse can be turned into a bold mouse, and vice versa, by transplanting gut bacterial samples from one type to another. The mechanism is still unknown, but this much is clear: the gut is inextricable from the mind.

Tongs! I brought short-handled tongs. And with these I can manipulate the food without handling it. With the coals ready, the next task is to get the potatoes, previously oiled, seasoned, and wrapped in foil, going. It’s time to lay out the spread: Tablecloth down, then scallion sour cream and butter, salt and pepper in shakers, mustard, sauerkraut, horseradish, olives, pickled cucumbers, beets, pimientos, and summer beans.

Now, Old Country sausages go on, hot beer and Hungarian. These need watched. Turned frequently until slightly brown and sizzling, the skin just starting to raise the tiniest of welts all around. Now for the buns, just enough heat to crust and fortify the bread against the onslaught of juice it will need to endure when heavy with sausage and toppings.

“The food’s all ready.”

No one moves.

I stand there, looking at these fat, lurid sausages, full to bursting with microorganisms. I haven’t eaten, but this food looks dangerously…alive. The thought of filling my mouth with this microbial meat, manipulated and befouled by some stinking, fat old Eastern European butcher fills me with revulsion. And that sauerkraut. I cured it myself, and—I already live with my own filthy microbiome—it has clearly also been incubated, concentrated, become putrid with fungal and bacterial cultures that reside on my skin. But why should they trust me, if I don’t go first? How will I ever re-enter the fold if I don’t take the leap?

The dramatic snap of the skin, enhanced by the gustatory snap of nitric oxide myoglobin, satisfies something dangerously primitive. This must be how it feels to snap into a chubby cheek. But better seasoned, for sure. The butcher has expertly bound up lean fat and water in a perfect emulsion. The juice bursts forth, hot and salty. Black pepper just barely bites the tongue before a gestalt that can only be described as savory washes over all.

We stand watching Eagle Creek fatten the Columbia, eating in silence, washing down each bite with Sierra Nevada. The sun glints off calm water as ducks swim about, diving under to eat whatever it is that ducks eat. The breeze stirs the flags atop the Bonneville dam.

“These are pretty good sausages,” I say to my friend.

“Hell, yeah, they are,” Friend mumbles around a mouthful of toasted bread.

The child awakes and we pour hot cups of cocoa, spiking ours with a blend of rums to ward off the chilly breeze. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she catches sight of a raptor dipping its own meal from the river. The fish looks twice the bird’s size.

“What he doing?” little girl asks, pointing through tall firs to the bird.

“He’s eating that fish,” Mother says.

“Is fish gonna die?”

“Well, yeah, he has to die for the bird to eat,” I say.

“Are you gonna eat me?

From the inside, sweetie.

And a man is nothing but a vector.

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