“What happens to zoo animals after a war?” I asked as I whittled one end of a stick into a sharp point with my Boy Scout pocketknife.
“Depends,” my aunt said. “It depends if they’re on the winning side or on the losing side.”
She laughed and then kicked at our campfire with her boot. Then she looked around cautiously before reaching into her coat pocket. Slowly she brought out a small semi-automatic handgun and placed it on her thigh. I opened my mouth to inquire about the pistol but stopped short when she glared back at me with squinted eyes and a frown.
My Aunt Leslie — whom I’d only ever met a few times before — had journeyed up from the Bay Area to take a hike into the remote hills just west of St. Helena. That day she’d brought her son, Chris, and an unnamed man who had stringy neck tendons, his arms covered in blurry tattoos, and a weathered face with sunken cheeks.
A week earlier I’d first learned about the impending adventure.
“Oh yes, that would be fine,” I had overheard my mother say on the phone. “I realize Timmy’s young, but he knows some wonderful places for hikes, just out of town — he can guide you.”
Watching Saturday cartoons in one of our overstuffed beanbag chairs that morning, I had strained to listen to the conversation. The house was warm and smelled of coffee and bleach; a radio hummed softly from the kitchen, the familiar melodic lilt of Paul Harvey’s voice reporting “The Rest of the Story.”
On the TV Bugs Bunny had just put on a dress and was attempting to seduce some love-struck hillbillies with a square-dance song that would almost certainly lead them to their demise.
“Mom, who was that on the phone?” I asked when she’d hung up.
“Your Aunt Leslie,” she said. “She’s coming up next weekend with your cousin to get away from the city. She could use some fresh air.”
I wiggled down into the beanbag chair, and the Styrofoam bee-bee-sized “beans” from inside made squeaky squeals.
“Would you please stop doing that — It sounds like nails on a chalkboard,” my mom said as she approached with two slices of toast in her hand.
Each piece of the golden bread was coated with margarine and generously sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. I reached out greedily as she teased me with the tasty morsels — thrusting them in my direction and then pulling them back quickly.
“Why does she need fresh air?” I asked, my voice wheezing a little as I lunged forward to finally grab my treat.
My mother shrugged and then turned her gaze toward the TV.
Bugs Bunny was leading the hillbillies up a mountain toward a cliff, their expressions full of resignation and resolve. They would follow this dress-clad bunny to the end.
“Look how Bugs is kicking those hicks’ butts,” she said to the TV.
The tightness in her voice told me she was holding back a laugh.
“He’s pretending to be a girl,” I said.
“Anyone can be anything they want to be — so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else,” she shot back.
Our enormous calico cat, Momma Kitty, had jumped down from her perch on the mantel and was rubbing herself on my mom’s bathrobe-clad leg.
My mother shook her head, “I can’t believe we let you watch this crap — so much violence — no wonder the world is full of wars.”
“We’re learning about war at school,” I said, my voice obscured by the half-masticated cinnamon toast in my mouth.
She looked down at me and gave me a tight frown.
“Are we at war with anyone now?” I asked before taking another bite.
“Yes, a few small ones here and there, but nothing that you should worry about,” she said.
I nodded and took another bite. It was cold, but I liked the crunchiness and its buttery, sweet taste. I chewed it for a longtime before swallowing.
“Last week we had a drill at school where we got under our desks to practice for when the war-bombs come,” I said.
She let out a long sigh.
“Why don’t you turn off the boob tube and help me clean this house,” she said as she turned to walk back to the kitchen.
I didn’t answer. The hillbillies were just about ready to step off the cliff.
A week later I’d become the guide for my cousin, his mom and their unnamed friend as we hiked the hills west of town. A downpour had forced us to seek shelter under a large Douglas fir tree but not before our clothes and shoes were soaked through. To dry us out my aunt started a fire. We sat and watched the flames and discussed the fate of the animals in war-torn countries.
“I believe that the losing sides in World War II — places like Germany and Japan — actually shot most of the zoo animals at the end,” Aunt Leslie said.
“But why kill them? They were in cages — they couldn’t hurt anyone,” Chris said.
“Probably cuz the people were starvin’ and needed to eat ’em — or maybe cuz the animals were starvin’,” the man broke in, his gravelly voice sounding as if it were coming from rusted pipes. “Either way, that’s just the way things is when you lose.”
We sat for a long time in silence. The rain had stopped, but heavy drips from the trees still fell to the ground, their sound muffled by the forest floor, thick with leaves and moss. I wished I were back home.
Just then the man cocked his head in the direction of a dense grove of manzanita to our left.
“Hear that, honey?” he asked.
My aunt strained to listen.
“They’ve found us,” he whispered as he rose noiselessly to his feet.
My aunt’s arm lurched skyward, thrusting the gun toward the man, who, with surprising dexterity, grabbed the pistol and swung around to point it in the direction from which the sound had allegedly come.
“You come out quiet, hands up, and no one gets hurt,” he called out to the wilderness.
I sat still. I held my breath.
What happened next is another story.
Originally published in the St. Helena Star, January 2019