The following is a work of fiction, which originally appeared in Pooled Ink, a literary anthology.
I was high enough in the redwood tree that the cops couldn't reach me. I'd counted 10 trespassing tickets tacked to the lower trunk. The rain had ceased, but big drops were rolling off the leaves 200 feet higher and hitting the tarp above the recycled wood platform. Northern California could be so cold.
The things I'd do for Trevor. He was probably back at our apartment half-drunk, half-stoned or half-crazy. How many times had I written his college papers? Or lied to the police about his whereabouts?
Tomorrow was Election Day and Trevor wanted to vote. He could have voted absentee like I did, but he didn't have his shit together enough to send in the form. So he passed the duty on to me, the rookie tree-sitter, to protect the tree that he'd named Athena. Trevor figured the logging company would slay her the minute he came down.
It was now 8 p.m. and the fog had moved in to the delight of the big trees. I'd been studying Athena's bark patterns since noon. I owed something to Trevor for getting me out of the apartment and onto the cliffs near Mount Shasta last summer. I avoided most risks anymore with a bad leg, which I shattered in a motorcycle accident when I was 18, but I soon became a decent enough climbing partner, not that I had overcome all of my fears. Trevor was different. On rock, his lanky frame moved with the confidence of a lizard.
Fear of falling 10 stories had sapped my energy. I was dozing off when I heard howling penetrate the fog. It was high pitched and female. Tree-sitters greeted each other that way in the forest, but without practice, I thought I'd embarrass myself by howling back. I waited for the flickering light to come closer.
She/it howled again.
"Hello," I said.
"Is that the best you can do for me, Palmer?"
It was Calliope, Trevor's girlfriend. She was aiming her headlamp up the tree trunk and asked if she could come up. I lowered the rope. In the light, I could see her putting on her climbing harness. She connected her ascenders to the rope and started working her way toward the forest canopy. Girls back in Upstate New York couldn't climb like she could.
I helped her swing over to the platform and clipped the back of her harness to some nylon webbing with a climbing carabiner.
"Thanks, Palmer," she said, as if I had opened a door for her. She slid off her backpack and let it thud on the platform. "I brought you some goodies. Green tea. Those granola thingies you like. Dried fruit. Chocolate. You gotta have chocolate if you're spending a night in a tree."
I thanked her. "How's Trevor?"
"How should I know?" She took off her headlamp.
I always loved Calliope's personality. She was the stabilizing factor within the Incredibly Round Earth Society, the cool head among burning torches. She came from a farm family in flat, humid Bakersfield. As the public relations chief, she gathered newspaper clippings and Web postings of the movement's exploits and rallied everybody when Trevor decided it was time to protest. She was in her sophomore year at the university. I was a senior.
Trevor, on the other hand, was the son of a San Francisco shipping magnate. I remember the day we went to the bank, him all stinking of booze, salt water and sex. The teller must have thought he was homeless until she saw how much he had in his account. Trevor thought it was cool to act poor. He had gone to several colleges in Northern California but, at 25, failed to complete a degree. He liked to lead without responsibility, provide the lightning without thunder. I sensed the movement was beginning to fracture, with some saying he was in it all for himself.
Calliope looked up at me with a confident smile, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. My memory filled in the hazel in her eyes under the dim light from the battery-powered lantern. That's how she must have looked to the judges when she was a high school gymnast. She had that petite, well-proportioned frame, packing plenty of power, and never wore much makeup. Calliope would make us breakfast in nothing more than a long T-shirt. That was until Trevor began the marathon tree-sit a month ago to save Athena. I missed Calliope's smile hovering above the stove.
"Not much room to dance up here," she said. "What've you been doing?"
"And you're up to?"
"Twelve, counting you."
She puffed up her cheeks. "I guess I'll take that as a compliment."
"You should. Squirrels are extremely cute."
She slapped my shoulder. "Been reading?" Calliope knew I liked to read. She had borrowed books from our apartment.
"Mostly I've been dozing off. I'm glad I can't see the ground anymore."
"I'm here," she said, putting her hands around my waist in a kind of half-hug. "I'll keep you safe."
I could never tell if she was interested in me. One morning when Trevor was off somewhere, we sat at the kitchen table and talked about our families. She reached over the table and held my hand in hers, warmed by a mug of tea. Calliope wanted to know why I hadn't been around much, and I told her I was trotting along the beach for therapy. Truth be told, I was afraid to be in the house when they were most likely to have sex. Calliope didn't make much noise in the past, but a creak of the bed lately was enough to tear away at my dreams of being with a woman like her.
At the same time, I knew Trevor was leading a double life; steamy sex with other women, sometimes in trees. As long as the coastal redwoods were around, Trevor would have a steady source of groupies and an element of danger to turn them on. But how could he do it behind Calliope's back?
Athena held us up now with her hundreds of years of patience. I sat on a foam pad with my back up against the tree trunk. Calliope sat between my legs with her back to me as if we were about to go sledding off into oblivion. We listened to the redwoods shedding water. Calliope was wearing fleece pants. She leaned back to unzip her insulated parka and I took in her mango-scented shampoo. She'd left a bottle of it in our shower. Underneath was a turtleneck. She reached in her backpack and pulled out the thermos of tea. She poured a cup, took a drink, then carefully handed it back to me.
"I know about the women," she said, as I was about to take a drink.
"Trevor's little sluts."
"How'd you find out?"
"A woman journalist, oddly enough."
"I'm sorry. That's a horrible way to find out."
"Especially because I helped build Trevor into whatever he is now. How do you think he got on all those magazine covers?"
Trevor was, after all, a marked man ever since he chained himself to the bumper of a car, which happened to be owned by a logging company president, and fasted for three days. Though weak, he shoved the police when they cut him free. With the long hair and gyrating hips, people compared him to Jim Morrison of The Doors. Thanks to the national publicity, blondes with dreadlocks started showing up at our apartment at all hours with fake handcuffs and flowers, making offerings to a god who subsisted on Fruit Loops and popcorn.
"That's why you're here? The women?"
"I'm here to see you. I didn't think either of us would be sleeping well tonight."
"I wanted to tell you."
"You couldn't. I know. I respect that."
I handed the cup back to her. I reached for my down sleeping bag and pulled it around the two of us. "I'm glad you turned out to be a squirrel instead of a wolf."
"I didn't think I was good at howling."
"Scared the hell out of me."
Her head drooped. "You know, I see you as a family man someday."
"Really? Now I feel boring."
"No, you're not. We're high in a tree on a flimsy platform built by my cheating so-called boyfriend."
My mind locked on the "so-called" part. She'd never put it that way.
We finished the rest of the tea and she stowed the thermos in her pack. She reached back and grabbed my wrists and placed them on her little knees. I instinctively rubbed her thighs and her head fell back on my shoulder. Her legs were as smooth and firm as the arm rests on a velvet wingback chair we used to have.
"That feels so good. You have strong hands. Sure you weren't a farm boy?"
"I aim to please."
"Oh, you do," she said.
More drops hit the tarp.
"So what's your deal? You've always been on the periphery of the group. It's almost like you've been studying us."
"I moved in with Trevor mainly because the apartment was cheap. Besides, his circle seemed entertaining. Then I got sucked in, at least partially."
"It's easy to do."
"Unlike Trevor, I want to finish my degrees and get out of school." I was majoring in environmental science and economics and wanted to find ways to make environmental policy profitable. They nicknamed me Wall Street for the budget work I did for the movement.
Calliope leaned forward. "Now do my shoulders."
She rolled her head side to side as I rubbed. When her head stopped moving, I hugged her waist tightly and she pressed back into me.
"Who do you admire?" she asked.
"Besides you for bringing me chocolate?"
"Yes," she laughed, "besides me."
"That's an interesting choice."
"He created Yellowstone and overcame tragedy. He lost his wife and mother on the same day in the same house."
"Same day?" she asked.
"Oh, that's sad. So sad."
"I read about him when I was all messed up in the hospital."
"How's your leg? Is it this one?" She guessed left, which was correct.
"It hurts when it's cold and damp, but you took my mind off it."
"Score one for me. So you didn't know it was cold and damp when you moved here?"
"I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I read about Roosevelt going out West to rebuild his life. That's what inspired me."
"That's beautiful. I like that."
I hugged her again. "Are you warm enough?" On the North Coast, it was either 55 degrees and rainy or 65 degrees and sunny, mostly the former, year-round.
"Oh yeah, Palmer," she said. "I feel great."
I put my hands back on her thighs and slowly worked my way up, expecting to find my limits. I felt her turtleneck and she wasn't wearing a bra. I caressed her breasts and she rolled her head on my shoulder. I moved back down. The harness left open the crotch area and I felt moisture work its way through her tights.
"Definitely not a farm boy," she said. "You've got the soft touch."
Just as she was getting excited, she rolled over and kissed me. Again and again. Long ones and short ones. She stopped to remove her jacket.
"Oh," she said, flicking some strands of hair over her ear. She unzipped her jacket pocket and pulled out a condom. The wrapper trembled in her fingertips.
She stared into my eyes and must have seen my own nervousness, but the darkness and the great trees and our lust for skin made us behave drunkenly as we started undoing our waist belts. If the platform collapsed now, we'd be yanked out of our leg straps and fall headfirst. I made a pillow out of our jackets and slid down while she climbed on top. The lantern had dimmed, but I could still see the lines of her little face. More rain hit the tarp. Our pants were partway down in a confused mess of softness and sweat.
"Damn this climbing equipment," she said, before landing on my chest.
It was a good excuse for us to stop and come to our senses. Maybe this was impossible. Maybe we weren't willing to completely let go. I pulled the sleeping bag back around us and formed a cocoon.
I asked her to stay for a while.
"Lovely." She put her arm around my neck. "You know what they're going to say, don't you?"
I shook my head.
"Palmer and Calliope, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G."
"How will they find out?"
"The trees talk."
We dozed for a bit until one of us must have moved. We slept some more, but this time for a couple of hours. We awoke at the same time. More rain. Our eyes met and we immediately started kissing again. Our minds were still out in the land of dreams where you could fall but not actually die. She reached down and, with her eyes still focused on mine, started removing her harness. I followed her lead and we pulled off our pants. She climbed on top of me and we worked ourselves into an ancient ritual under trees that had been around for centuries. We didn't bother looking for the condom. We were animals now. Whether or not we were still dreaming, as the platform creaked and groaned, we were depending on Trevor's carpentry skills to protect us from gravity.
We restored our pants and harnesses and slept until dawn, although dawn came later in the darkness of the redwood forest. She had awakened once in the night to laughingly pee in a bucket.
"Time for your little squirrel to get to class. That was a nice night."
"That was a perfect night." The oddness of it all still hadn't sunken in.
"Are you staying up here all day?"
"Until tonight. That's what I promised."
"You don't need to make promises. I think this tree will be safe for a few hours."
She stretched, put on her backpack, and gave the coil of climbing rope a kick. The rope became taut, dangling from the loop of webbing around the trunk above us. She ran her figure-eight rappelling device through the rope.
"This should be a fun commute," she said. "Call me when you come back to Earth."
As we were kissing goodbye, she fell away with a playful smirk. She zipped down the rope about ten feet and stopped. I peeked out over the platform.
"Hey," she said. "You're a generous lover."
"That's the nicest thing you could have said."
I watched her turn into a yellow dot. Calliope ran up the trail and disappeared into the fog's clutches.
By blowing off a class or two, I had the rest of the day to think about her. Was she just getting back at Trevor? Would she return to him? Would this become some awkward event that we would never talk about again? Or was she, in fact, my little squirrel? Whatever happened with her, I decided to tell Trevor. I couldn't live under the same roof in a fog of deceit. I'd pack my things and move out, whatever happened.
I held up my end of the deal anyway and stayed up in the tree until evening. This was more out of respect for Athena than Trevor. I rappelled to the ground and patted her on the bark.
As the shock was setting in, some members of the movement went on a media rampage. They were posting items on the blog, calling Trevor's death a murder. They claimed that there was a yelling match going on between protesters and loggers, which had distracted Trevor. They also were checking into some potential climbing gear failures. Mainstream media reports quoted the police as saying that Trevor had fallen after the protest had disbursed and that he wasn't roped in.
I had a different view. Maybe he was distracted by the betrayal of his own roommate, friend and climbing partner. I didn't want to go near The Nest.
The funeral took days to pull together as Trevor's father was returning from the Middle East on business. While it was taking shape, the movement circulated a post-mortem picture of Trevor on the Internet. They'd converted it to black and white, but with some novel photo editing, had left his eyes blue. His face was perfectly preserved and he had this peaceful look as if he were back in our apartment on his favorite chair. He was an instant martyr and the movement knew he would live on as long as the redwoods in some digital form.
Guilt was already nibbling away at me in the quiet ash heap of our apartment. Members of the movement came by to collect Trevor's belongings. As soon as everything was gone, including the beer and pot plants, I went on an all-night cleaning frenzy. I washed the walls, waxed the floors, and vacuumed every fiber of the carpet. I'd forgotten what season it was until Christmas lights started popping out on Victorian homes.