I spent the morning being watched by an eagle. This was the day of the week I did outside work. It was early fall. The leaves were just beginning to change. The light frost had melted and the grass had dried enough for me to start mowing the lawn. I had just finished mowing one track around the lawn when he flew in.
He came in low from the slight rise in the west. I saw the dark shape crest the tree line and started immediately to reject the shapes it wasn't. Not a crow ... too big. Not a heron ... wrong neck. Not a hawk ... An eagle! He flew right in front of me and landed in the tallest tree in the yard. As he spread his wings in landing, I saw the white head and a small white spot. He was a young bird then; maybe that was why he landed?
He looked at me mowing. I knew how good the eagle's eyes were. He could have watched me from across the farmer's field to the east. Why did he come here? I cut the grass watching the bird as he watched me. He tracked my movements with his eyes, across and up and down the yard. As I mowed under the tree waiting for him to take flight, the minutes stretched to an hour and still he watched. Every time my back was toward him, I could feel his eyes. When I couldn't stand the prickly sensation on the back of my neck, I would twist around and there he watched with his head canted to one side.
I turned a corner with the mower and looked. He was gone! I scanned the empty sky, the far tree line looking for the familiar shape. Why had he come? Why had he chosen me to watch? The back of my neck tingled; I looked and saw nothing. But I felt the eyes, the eyes of an eagle watching. In my mind I saw the raptor cock his head and fluff his feathers as he watched. What was he thinking when he watched? Did he think me strange for staying on the ground? Or did he envy the way I easily covered the yard? Or was there something else? Somehow I knew there was something else to those watching eyes.
* * * *
The Chameleon was a scout infiltrator. He worked for a group known to themselves as the Users. Referring to the Chameleon, as a he, could be wrong. The only one who still might know the gender of the Chameleon is the Chameleon. Depending on the infiltration, the Chameleon could be a male, female, neutral or somewhere in-between.
The Users would move into a community. After living in the neighborhood for possibly years, they would leave, stripping it of everything they could take. This would be more than just the material wealth of the community. The Users would scavenge the intellectual and social fabric of the society. Local companies would be taken over and sold. Copyrights, plans, the very soul of the community would be copied and destroyed. When the Users were done with a neighborhood, it would be a hollow shell of what it had been. It would take decades, if ever, for the community to recover. By then the Users, richer than before, would have sucked dry the life of other communities. Stronger, they would wait for the chance to return to harvest the strength of the region again.
The Chameleon waited and watched learning all he could about the new objective before becoming a member of the community. The Chameleon was a legend among the Users. He, in his various disguises, had infiltrated dozens of communities planning their rape. The Chameleon was the only scout never to run afoul of the local authorities. The Chameleon's existence was a lonely one. The little pleasure he took was from the theft of the happiness of the individuals living in the community, his goal, the success of his family, the Users.
He watched. Which gender would give him the most access to the community? Which disguise would give him the most pleasure? Which local community was the richest?
* * * *
I am living on the old family farm. Until last year, I lived in Chicago. My father had died five years earlier and just last year my mother had joined him. My brother lives in New York and made it plain to my dad that he never wanted to come back to the farm. Dad had always wanted to keep the farm in the family so when he retired from farming he signed the land over to me with the agreement that I wouldn't move in until both my parents were both gone.
My job is checking technical accuracy of submitted articles and manuscripts for a major textbook/magazine publishing house in Chicago. I like my job. I like Chicago, but I couldn't stand living there. I had worked for the company for twelve years, right out of college. I would only meet my boss twice a year, the Christmas party and the summer Fourth of July picnic. Most of my time, I spent on the computers or at the libraries. I was their fastest proofreader so when I suggested that I would like to work at home they let me. I've been at the farm for eleven months and I'm not sure if my boss yet realizes that 'home' is in a different state.
Before I moved back home, I completely re-wired the old farmhouse. But it still feels like home. All the changes occurred within the walls. My brother's and my old bedrooms are converted into my workroom. I have a small library on the shelves, one top of the line PC, one used PC linked permanently to the Internet, a laptop, and three phone lines. Because of the high cost of living in town, my workroom still costs the company less then my downtown Chicago office space.
The farm itself consists of 160 acres of land, half of which are wooded. The old barn had burned down in an electrical storm ten years ago and had been replaced with a metal equipment shed. My father had changed, during the last few years he had worked the farm, from dairy and beef cattle to planting seed crops and hadn't been forced to replace the barn when it burned. The insurance money from the barn had been a Godsend being that both my father and mother had started to have failing health. The old brick milk house still stood, but most of the equipment inside had either been sold or rusted away. There is a two-stall garage next to the house. One door is the size of an average car while the other is large enough to accommodate a small truck. The house is a small cozy two story salt box with a full basement. The north corner of the basement has our sauna. Firewood is brought down through a chute that opened from the side of the house just above ground level.
As I stepped into the house from the cool fall air, I could smell the warm moist essence of home. With a little bit of trying I could find the smell left from my mother's cooking, the hint of pipe tobacco from before my father quit smoking, the spilled soap from the laundry in the basement, and the mustiness of the household animals.
I entered the workroom. Lying on the warm computer chassis my cat, Move-over, slept. He was a longhaired mottled gray, white, and black animal of about fifteen pounds. When he napped during the day, he would drape himself over the Internet computer. His legs and tail would dangle in the air while his head rested directly above the chassis' fan. For some reason, the cat liked the hum of the fan. I jiggled the computer mouse enough to get the screen to come out of sleep mode. As I waited for the screen to come up with any email messages, the cat raised his hoary scared head and looked at me. Cats always seem to know more than any animal should when they look at you. The aloof stare reminded me of a scientist studying an experiment with me being the subject. After the eagle, the stare bothered me. I scratched the cat's belly knowing he would go to sleep. A rumble came from the animal and his head went down, but when I looked his lids were not closed. The slitted yellow eyes still watched.
In my inbox was an angry message from a scientist, a Nobel-laureate. He had submitted an article for one of my company's magazines. The article was on the dynamics of ecosystems. He had tried to prove that species die-out was caused because ecosystems are inherently unstable and degenerating. I had recommended that the magazine not print the article. It was not up to his previous standards. The scientist had not had anything printed for a while. I felt he had just thrown something together to get his name in print again. I had sent the scientist my review pointing out a series of flaws in his statistical analysis and referencing a number of sources using Chaos math that showed the system would have an inherited complexity not degeneration. I finished with a note that if the concerns about the article were addressed I would recommend it be printed.
It was a good thing for the scientist that the blistering letter was sent email. If it had been sent through the regular mail, it would have been violated a number of laws. I copied it to my cranks file. Someday I will have to go through the file. I'm sure I will soon have enough material to write my own book. I nearly put my computer back into sleep mode, but I noticed that Internet connection was still active and I was having a lot of hard disk accessing. A virus? This was why I had the old computer as my Internet access. All my sensitive files were kept on my other computer. I ran my anti-virus programs and found nothing. I then did a file check with my backup disks. Nothing. I gave up, thinking it was just a quirk in the system.
I was tired by the time I finished my system checks. I went to bed. As I dozed off, I felt the cat climb on top of my chest. I scratched him behind his ears and under his chin. His front paws moved as he kneaded my chest. I had to go to sleep. Tomorrow I would be taking supplies to my uncle. His rumbling purr lulled me to oblivion. Somehow I knew before I drifted off that his eyes were open, watching.
When I woke up, Move-over was gone. I never saw the cat leave. He would just disappear for a few hours or a few days if a local female was in heat. Every so often, he would come back with a new scar or two. He would then stand in front of me and yowl until I would pick him up. A scratch under the chin and a compliment about his fighting prowess, he would jump down and walk away with his tail high in the air for a banner.
Today I didn't think much about the cat. I had to get the canoe on the pickup and my uncle's supplies packed. My uncle was a hermit. He had gone to Vietnam when he was eighteen and served two tours of duty before coming home. When I was younger, I could remember him coming home to the farm every time he lost a job. One day I helped my father and uncle load a canoe with supplies. We drove north to a river that flowed through a number of different state and national forests before entering the Rainy Lake flowage. From the river's edge, we watched my uncle paddle away. We didn't hear from him for two years. He had finally found a place he could live.
He had discovered a pocket of dry land surrounded by northern peat bogs. During the winter months, you could get in by snowshoes. During the other seasons, you could only get in by canoe. He built a shack on the high ground. Every so often, the forestry department would try to force him out. They never tried too hard. To my knowledge, they never saw him except by air. The one time they tried to take apart his shack my uncle stole their canoes. They were taken out of the swamps two days later by helicopter. Their canoes showed up at a landing by Ely a week after that.
Over the years my uncle had a harder and harder time leaving the woods. Dad had started to bring supplies to him three times each year. He would load a canoe and drift down the river. His brother would show up within a matter of hours and they would head for his shack.
I loved my crazy uncle. It was nice having a truly eccentric relative in the family to talk about. He was not a mean or violent man. It was just that no one had helped him come back from Vietnam. When we talked, you could tell there was a part of him not there. He had become a part of his hideaway. Anything that happened around his retreat, he knew about. Without leaving his shack, he knew if one of his snares had been sprung or an animal was in a trap. He seemed to know about the tracks left by the animals traveling though the bogs before he walked up to see them.
Today was a beautiful fall day. I drifted down the river enjoying the clean air and the river sounds. In the years I had spent in Chicago, I could never remember a time without traffic sounds. I never got used to it. I heard the loud deep call of a Pileated Woodpecker followed by the hammering as he searched for food. As I drifted past a bend in the river, I saw a tree on the bank. It had a series of large holes nearly tearing its trunk in half. The base of the tree was covered with large white splinters. The big black and white woodpecker slowly fluttered to the tree. Instead of hammering at the tree or sending a call, the red crested bird turned his head and watched me drift past. The hammering didn't start till I was out of sight.
"That was interesting," said a soft voice from the shore. I jerked so fast I nearly tipped the canoe.
"Ben! I wish you wouldn't sneak up on me." I nosed the canoe into the bank. My uncle pulled his old scarred canoe out from behind some brush and we paddled off in silence. He led me off the river up a small stream. The stream cut its way through a floating bog. Every year the channel through the bog would change, as the floating vegetation would drift to new locations. Finally we came to a section of land that looked like all the rest of the bog, but instead of being just a few inches of dirt and roots floating on water it was a bar of sand and rock. Ben's shack lay just behind a screen of brush a couple of dozen feet from the stream.
My uncle never talked till after the supplies were unloaded and stored away. One of the first things he did was open a can of coffee. He set it brewing in a pot on the old rusty barrel stove he had in the shack. When we finished, he poured me a cup of the scalding hot brew. I had the only cup in the place. Ben poured his own coffee in an old Campbell's soup can. I couldn't help but notice he had a whole rabbit, fur and all, simmering in a pot next to the coffee. I knew I wouldn't be staying for supper.
As we drank, I felt eyes upon me. I started to search the shack. I found the watching eyes. In the corner under an old wood crate, a mouse sat watching me. His little paws groomed his whiskers. His eyes never left my face.
A whisper came from my uncle. "You know, Dan. It was my third time as point man before they started watching me."
"When our squad went on patrol, there had to be a man out front. He was the eyes of the squad. If the point man wasn't good, he would get either himself or the squad killed. He had to see the enemy before they saw him. He had to evade the booby traps and mark them for the rest of the squad to avoid.
"The first time I worked the point I nearly got everyone killed in an ambush, but I learned. I liked the point. It was just me and the jungle. It was my third time at point. I was maybe a hundred meters ahead of the rest of the squad. I noticed that the birds had stopped making a ruckus when I walked past. They would watch me pass. Later when the squad followed, they complained but with me they just watched.
"It happened during my second tour... During that patrol, I walked out of the jungle and started across a rice paddy. I felt eyes. The eyes came from my left. I turned and looked back at the edge of the jungle. Finally, I saw the eyes. A VC sniper was watching the paddy. I locked onto his eyes. We must have stared at each other for ten minutes. I could hear the squad coming out of the jungle behind me. The sniper just backed away into the trees.
"The only one of the squad who ever learned about the watching was the sergeant. He was a Nisei from San Francisco. He saw the birds watching me at point halfway through my last tour. He called the birds, Yosei, Japanese fairies. I still remember him whispering, "Don't tell the rest of the squad." A mortar round got the sarge a week later. Blew him in half."
Old Ben took another swallow of coffee. That was the longest he had ever spoken to me at one time. He looked so sad sipping the coffee. The mouse still watched.
Ben got up and rummaged around under the pile of old clothes and tree boughs he called his bed. I always considered it more of a nest than a bed. He came back with a leather sheathed knife. He handed it to me. "This is your Great Grandfather Ilmari's puukko. He brought it with him when he emigrated from Finland. He gave it to me when I was ten. He said that I would need to know how to use a knife. He was right..."
He drank another swallow of coffee. I could see the pain of old memories in his face. With eyes filled with sadness, he said, "It is yours now."
The old leather sheath was scuffed and blackened with age. The varnish on the wood hilt was worn off in places. I pulled the knife from the sheath. In my hand the old knife felt lighter than the knives I had in my kitchen although the blade was nearly twice as thick. The clip blade was a dark rippled gray--the color high-grade hand-forged carbon steel fades to with age. The edge was honed bright. I turned the blade up. The sharpened edge disappeared. I knew if I just touched the blade with my thumb blood would flow. I turned.
The mouse still watched.