Just Breathe

Just Breathe

We are excited to present in full our featured story from Issue 2: Aftermath, by Yvonne Conza. Conza’s writing has appeared in Longreads, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, AGNI and elsewhere. UK’s Dodo Ink will feature her work in an upcoming anthology. You can purchase Issue 2 on the shop page. 

fear tells us to live. ~ Patrick Lane

July 28th, 1971. Perched on the hillside overlooking the campsite where my nine-year-old brother and his friend were setting up for their first sleep out on our neighbor’s property, I watched pegs driven into the ground to support a backyard lean-to and waited for a beckoning hand gesture to join the two Boy Scouts. My brother Kevin and I, nearly identical small-boned redheads, were glued together. He was my playmate and mentor who gave me the confidence to ride my bicycle over bone-shaking gravel and taught me to tie my sneakers so I wouldn’t fail kindergarten. Make a ‘V’ with the strings, cross one over the other and pull. Then make a bow. The almost three year age gap between us was ignored as he invited me to all his school parties, I made my first communion ahead of time with him and one of his class photos included me. But for his first overnight campout, I was shut out. It was boys’ night, an adventure my brother and his friend had lobbied for all summer. Still I waited as they unpacked their knapsacks filled with marshmallows, hot dogs, candy bars and the grape Kool-Aid they drank from canteens as they unfolded their sleeping bags and fluffed their pillows. All that remained for the boys to do was build a campfire. Together they gathered kindling from the moist ground and tried to light it. No luck. They kept trying. Finally the other boy picked up the lawn mower’s gallon gas can—a backup to ignite the fire if the Boy Scout way fizzled—and poured a small amount of fuel onto the wood. A few sparks flared up but whimpered away lickety-split so he added more fuel. The wind’s shift was untimely. I imagine my brother heard a dull pop, like the sound of a gas grill firing when first turned on.

The woods behind our neighbor’s house turned bestial blue, orange and black. Both boys ran to safety, but realizing the other boy’s dog was tethered inside to keep from him running off in the night, my brother went back into the inferno. The rescued pup raced across the backyard doing zany circles till somebody nabbed him by the collar. When I saw my brother, his head, body and hands were on fire and I noticed something sliding off his body. It was his skin. That snapshot stuck in my head. Kevin’s mind didn’t register that his life was slipping away. Unshaken, he patted down his arms. I just stood there with my mouth ajar. Words abandoned me.

Spotting the emergency from a kitchen window, our sixteen-year-old next-door neighbor bolted across his yard and rolled Kevin to the ground, then walked back to his house, never looking back. It was too much for him to take in. Had it not been my brother, I would have bolted away. As my sibling’s charred body slowly rose from the ground, I ran inside the house before he could get there and stood behind Mom unsure of what would happen next. 

Kevin knocked on the neighbor’s screen door and, before entering, boyishly announced his injury without inflection. Mom – Mom, I’m burnt. For a split second, my mom and the neighbor’s mother froze in horror. Their minds couldn’t—couldn’t comprehend, or believe what they saw. My brother’s plastic hazel-brown eyeglass frames had melted onto his face. Coffee cups crashed to the floor as they jolted to swift-footed action. Our neighbor assisted him to her bathroom, put him into the tub and splashed cool water on him. Pieces of his flesh began to flake off and swirl down the drain. A putrid smell penetrated the air and made me recoil as an unseen ghost girl.

Mom called 911 about a boy burned and gave the address. There were voices around me, but I could only concentrate on lips moving—words echoing into cavernous clamors. A siren cry chaperoned by circling red lights soon pierced the picture windows. Paramedics entered with a stretcher. Their reflexive gags verified the horror. My scorched sibling’s get it together willful stare triggered them back into the reality of their ungraspable job. 

Kevin was unable to lie down on the gurney. Had he walked to the ambulance? I convinced myself that if I captured those moments frame-by-frame, I would keep him alive. Diarizing his details kept me from the sway of shell-shock. Someday he’d ask for the specifics of his story, need to know what had happened. We were each other’s storybook accomplices—Hansel and Gretel fending for ourselves in a fogged forest. Our bond was tangled within a turbulent home life. 

Kevin and I were each other’s safety net. Clinging companionship flourished as we explored the woods and ravine behind our house, trailing a chattering creek for hours before stopping to eat bologna and mustard sandwiches on Wonder Bread. Afterwards we’d swing on thick vines and craft silly stories. Following heavy spring rainstorms, the two of us would go outside and turn over rocks, or look inside clefts of mud tire tracks for red salamanders with black spots. Though barely two inches long, their fire engine red skin made them easy to find. Our pet salamanders, each named “Sammy” by us, never lasted more than a week inside a clear plastic, kidney-shaped turtle tank. In Greek mythology, these amphibians are linked with the element of fire and, it is said, they maintain focus and integrity even in times of confusion. 

As the double doors of the ambulance clanked closed, I saw Kevin sitting up, arc-shaped and bowed in battle, and knew he wasn’t coming home. We wouldn’t be playing together the next morning the way we had for as long as I could remember. The wailing EMS vehicle pulled away leaving the emptied street and the blackboard sky saturated with the residue of the snuffed-out fire. 

Hansel and Kevin were both locked in a cage. Gretel and I were lost in the woods of our thoughts without a trail of pebbles or breadcrumbs to follow back to safety. When is a fairytale part of a larger story? How does one remain sane when stranded mystical miles away from familiar habitat? What if going back home is not an option? 

***

Deer, bobcat, deer, deer, deer, another deer, coyote—then the sighting of a broad muscular back and unmistakable long tail. On February 12, 2012, Miguel Ordeñana, a wildlife biologist with The Griffith Park Connectivity Study, was examining hundreds of motion-triggered photos when something surprised him. After eyeballing the image several times, he recorded the first visual evidence of a mountain lion on a rugged trail above the Ford Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, just ten miles from downtown. Thirty-eight days later, another wildlife biologist, a go-to carnivore chaser, captured him in a bait cage. Researchers wanted to understand how a mountain lion, fenced in by a fragmented, constrained urban landscape, survived without connection to others of its own kind.

Thought to have crossed the 405 and 101 heavily-trafficked freeways, the lone cougar in Griffith Park was measured, blood and tissue sampled, outfitted with a GPS collar, then registered as P-22 and released. (P stands for Puma and he’s the 22nd cat fitted with a GPS tracking collar.) This two-year-old cat dodged cars and now lives as a ghost among humans in the middle of the second most populated city in America. Besides Mumbai, Los Angeles is the only other megacity in the world that has mountain lions within its city limits.

 “Dispersal narrative” is the terminology used to describe P-22’s biological behavior. He left his birth site to secure territory away from dominant older male mountain lions willing to fight to the death for their kingdoms. However, the dispersal impulse—leaving home to secure safety—is a far greater mystery. It’s the least known aspect of the species. Theories suggest a mother shooing her kitten away as she prepares for an oncoming new litter. Her cubs, born weighing just over a pound, then at fourteen to eighteen months hitting the scales upward of 120 pounds, are “encouraged” to strike out on their own. Translation: “momzilla” acts aggressively and unwelcoming toward them. Take a hike. Adiós. Don’t return.

From the start, a growing independence is instilled in the cubs. Mountain lion mothers don’t provide elaborate dens—little bedding and furnishings. The natal range encompasses various sites, not one particular place. Her kits are dragged, pushed and urged to travel many miles between kills. Males disperse with higher frequency. Hard-wired with an instinct, a drive, an evolutionary will to survive, a mother can reach a point of no longer tolerating offspring conflicts. Sometimes too, matriarchal abandonment is triggered by an unknown reason. 

The hind feet of mountain lions step into the fore track, creating overlapping patterns. Like human feet, their toes slant to indicate left or right paw. On the rear heel pads there are three lobs, “M” shaped, that create distinctive tracks. As P-22 journeyed away, did he look back? Think about the hardship of leaving? Or simply focus on survival?

We didn’t know if Kevin would live. And if he did, the quality of his life would be uncertain. From sunrise to sunset, while Mom and Dad were at the hospital, community volunteers passed tin-foil-covered home cooked meals of goulash and stuffed cabbage to us through the front door. Knowing that our brother in the ICU might die, they examined our faces for indications of shock. Our choired “thank you for your kindness” made them leave. My sister then trekked into the woods to chuck the stinky cabbage.

Kevin was burned over 75% of his body and he was given only a 2% chance of survival. These statistics floated inside my mind and explained the lack of adult supervision over my older siblings and me during this six to eight month period that was extended because of the constant need for reconstructive surgeries. Before the fire, things in our household were erratic. Then they became menacing, and the situation didn’t bring out the best in Nick, our troubled older brother. Our parents, without alternatives to our daytime supervision, needed us to behave. It was not the time to be a tattletale. Each of us pretended to be normal and fine as we sank into a stupor and led separate, isolated lives. 

One morning, like the one before it, our parents were already at the hospital and I was eating a breakfast of dry cereal and chocolate ice cream when Nick passed by me. Knowing that he was capable of explosive behavior, I avoided eye contact with him. He had once put our dog’s choke collar on our Siamese cat and dangled her in midair before becoming bored and letting her go.

My oldest brother had never hurt me before, but something incensed him as he walked by me. Did the snap-crackle-pop of the cereal against melting ice cream set him off? Or had he somehow heard my thoughts about the ballet lessons my parents insisted he take which did nothing to improve his posture? I didn’t mean it in a critical way. 

 WHAT! He shouted at me.

In that moment there were two ways to escape: darting right where Mom would have sat, or racing left past the chair where, if he was home and it was evening, Dad would’ve hunkered down for dinner with a close-at-hand tumbler of Chivas Regal on the rocks. I selected the matriarch side and gunned it for the front door. Is it instinctive for children to side with their mothers? Or did I simply take the shorter pathway to the door? She didn’t use her fists, but loving her came with its own violations.

Nick anticipated my move and scooped me up like a lumpy laundry bag. I grabbed the spindle leg of Mom’s chair and dragged it until it fell away, crashing to the floor. My sister heard the noise, the familiar battle sound of overturned furniture, minus the operatic crescendo of thrown glassware shattering on walls and fists slam-slapping the wood dining table. When our parents brawled after midnight, he’d yell about her keeping a sloppy house and she’d scream about him not acting like a man. Their slugged exchanges deteriorated to vulgarities: Cunt. Jackass. When I think back, I can still hear the dull thud of clobbered flesh from a closed fist. Violence and profanities in our household were staples like milk in the fridge. 

My sister was screaming and trying to pull me free. My brother swung around to face her, SHUT UP-SHUT UP-SHUT UP, then twirled me around in delight. This enjoyable game for him sent blood rushing to my head, the turning and spinning making me dizzy. I wanted it to be over, so I stopped struggling. He snatched the car keys off the tall credenza by the front door and headed outside carrying me as a scrap of nothingness.  

Holding me in place with one arm, he unlocked the car trunk. I thought he was going to spin the car around the yard at high speeds the way he and a friend had done the week before. Neighbors had told my parents, though it wasn’t necessary since the tread marks and torn-up patches of grass made it obvious. Typically, Dad would have beaten him with his belt, maybe even used the buckle, but this time he exercised restraint, urging his son to be more careful and telling him that our injured brother had been moved to the reverse isolation ward. Dad’s words were spoken with grief-gaps between each one. Reverse isolation ward staggered out as foreign language. I understood our hospitalized brother’s life hung on by a fraying thread.

Pain pierced my lower back as it slammed against the trunk’s hard interior. Remain completely still. Don’t struggle. Just breathe. The thump of the closing trunk was deafening. The shallow sable-shaded tomb was eerie. Locked inside the trunk of my Mom’s Chevrolet on a sweltering July day, I didn’t panic. To distract myself, I visualized the exterior of the car: blue, a faded silken summer sky blue with rust peeking out from the side panels. The worn interior was a darker blue—the color of a cheap suit handed down from one generation to the next. Rope-like piping frayed around the edges of the seats and, from years of yanking and pulling by keyed up toddlers with chocolate-stained hands, the belts stretched out like used shoelaces. 

Outside the car, my older sister was screaming at our eldest brother. She was ten and Nick fourteen. My seven-year-old self remained small and quiet. I withheld every other breath and skipped a few more. Growing up witnessing steady acts of violence, going to bed not knowing if Mom would be alive in the morning, robs you of your childhood. Whenever placed in peril, the edges of my thoughts turned to steel. Facing upward, coffin-style, sweat trickled down my forehead as my brother began to bang on the metal above my head. No provoking. Stay focused. One. Less. Breath. Turn this into a circus feat. I’m the strongman — I can do this. I surrendered into the stillness of a corpse. Movements of my mind, with their own greedy mechanics, halted as my sense of time shattered. 

“Like-the-time” sequences, not years, are how I recall childhood memories. Like the time Dad threw steak knives at my sister for telling him she wanted to become a nun. Like the time my oldest brother, 16, threatened Dad with a crowbar to his head because he beat Mom. Like the time or times when Mom became unhinged about her life, or maybe one of us kids, and with the demeanor of an amped-up, deranged cheerleader, shouted D-A-M-M-N-T, I-T, T-O-H-E-L-L-L. The extra “L” in hell was undoubtedly for emphasis, but dammit was clearly spelled wrong. Then apparently no longer feeling the compulsion to spell words, she tacked on an earsplitting and back again

In 2014, trail cameras captured P-22 looking diseased and with his face misshapen from mange. His pinned back ears and drawn eyes expressed dire haggardness. Eight times a day, the small gray box noose around his neck tracks his movements. The diary of location clusters pings to orbiting satellites and provides scientists with valuable insights about the coexistence of a mountain lion with people in a dense urban landscape. 90% of the time P-22 stays in thicketed natural habitat, away from people. 6% of his traveling, from dawn to dusk, takes place in residential areas. The remainder of his log shows stealthy, twilight treks to the landscaped sectors of Griffith Park. The data also provides biologists with the means to study his kill sites. Mule deer is his main food staple, but then there was a discovery of a coyote carcass. Coyotes are known to eat rodents that have been exposed to rat poison. 

Mange is a secondary illness brought on by rodenticide. Rat poison contains an anticoagulant that blocks an animal’s blood clotting abilities and causes uncontrollable bleeding. I read an article on how a small wound can bleed into the lungs or body cavity. In one case a wound had bled into the eyes, then the brain, of a lion. If P-22’s parasitic skin lesions go untreated, a slow, painful death will follow. Wildlife biologists set off into the underbrush of thick vegetation to recapture him. Under sedation, the batteries of his GPS collar were replaced and blood samples were taken to confirm his illness and provide treatment. It was impossible to know if he’d survive. 

Shame, the kind I know, is suffocating societal mange caused by the stigma of abuse and domestic violence. In our town, likened to Main Street meets Maple Avenue, the drunk we walked passed was the Mayor’s uncle or cousin, the girl called a slut lived up the road, the cat lady of our hamlet was the town historian rumored to be eccentric and a baby-powder colored circular barn, built in 1901, evoked a bone-tired joke. If you want to make someone crazy tell him to pee in the corner of round-barn. 

Countless times after midnight, a patrol car pulled into our driveway. Police pleaded with our parents not to kill one another, or maybe to just lower their voices. The next day one of the officers, working his other job, pumped gas into Dad’s car tank. Not wearing his badged uniform at Sunday mass, I’d snub his peace sign. Our neighbor often called 911 on our family. She pinned her clothes to a wash line rather than use a dryer. Scented with sunshine, fabric smells fresher. Another one of her rituals was to hand you a fresh baked cookie blanketed in a paper napkin. My town was a place where folks knew your business. We might not know everybody’s address, but we all knew where one another lived. Dad was called foolhardy, Mom was the victim that she casted herself as, and Nick was tagged as trouble or troubled depending on if it were a teacher or nun doing the chatting.

Outside the trunk, muffled shouting between my siblings was followed by a roar. You want the keys? Here. My brother’s madness ruptured and I pictured him running down the driveway, gone for hours—his pattern.

Silence. If the keys had landed on the loose gravel driveway, I would have heard a faint clink of metal against crushed stone. So they were probably tossed onto the grass of our front lawn that hadn’t been mowed in over a month. We didn’t live in a trailer park, but often it felt like we did.

Salt slid into the corners of my eyes, stinging them. It also seeped into the tiny bleeding lesions of my lips where I had bitten down hard with my front teeth. The skin on my face begged to be scratched. Expressing determination, I refused, and placed prayer hands over my pounding heart. My foot softly toe-tapped the spare tire while I contemplated how much air was left inside the trunk. 

Tall grass must have swayed against my sister’s hands as she furiously raked and patted the ground for Mom’s car keys. My brother’s fading, racing, gravel-crunching footsteps cued me that he was gone. I stayed conscious by doing hundreds of cartwheels inside my head. Cartwheels. With hands flat to the ground and legs v-shaped in the air, I imagined turning like a race-car wheel across the landscape of our backyard. Blades of grass would come into view. I’d let my fingertips touch down upon the surface, pretending the lawn had changed into windblown strips of confetti. The blue sky then rushed into my field of vision and dashes of marshmallow-colored clouds morphed into the frame. Maintaining absolute focus while everything around me turned upside down and around was essential. The kaleidoscopic-cartwheel feat picked up speed. Soon I felt I could soar and glide above the commotion for seconds of time.

With a creak, the trunk popped open and set me free. How long was I locked inside? Time no longer held meaning. Is it because the incarcerated lose the ability to track it? The outside July temperature felt like air conditioning. My sister searched my face for a reaction, but I gave none. I was scared and I didn’t want her to see my fear. Stiff muscles revolted as I climbed out, enveloped by the shame of having been powerless. Daylight transformed me into a silent movie character with a stilted walk and deadpan expression. 

I glanced into the car’s passenger window to confirm the accuracy of details that had kept my mind focused. Grime, mixed with various shades of weary blue, gave the interior vinyl a shabby vintage look. As I stepped back, the side mirrors appeared to be more than I’d imagined. They were purposeful and practical shiny metal eyes. Looking at them, I couldn’t help recognizing their capability of peering behind and slightly to the side of the driver’s challenged view. That insight felt important for reasons I didn’t yet know. Then, hoping she wouldn’t follow me, I walked away from my sister and began doing cartwheels in the backyard. Over and over I did them, stretching out my hands and turning my arms into spokes as I dove to the ground and pushed off into orbit, propelling myself forward until I was flying. In constant motion I was fearless, keeping at it until numb with exhaustion. A Tweedledum quote babbled eagerly in my ear: I’m very brave generally, only today I happen to have a headache

Often as a child, inside a cattail patch like deer before me, I pushed stalks to the ground and bedded myself away from predators. Cattail bogs suck up marsh water and grow into thick impenetrable barricades that block a pond from view, and allow a girl to disappear from sight. Encircled by the chirping of crickets and the soft sashaying of restless tree branches, I was shaded from the summer heat by this invasive native plant lair that supplied shelter. 

Lion empires tend to be solitary tracts of land averaging 75 to 250 square miles. Los Angeles’ ghost cat exists on tiny turf clustered with hiking, horse and biking trails traversed by over ten million humans a year. A golf course, tennis courts, an outdoor amphitheater, the famed observatory for gazers seeking spectacular views, and a zoo, further cramp P-22’s living quarters. Wildlife officials state that his eight square miles of territory is the smallest recorded home range of any adult male mountain lion ever studied. 

Hundreds of P-22 articles and videos are stored on my computer. An eight-year scientific study of the elusive lion confirms that only a single hand count of public sightings exists. Summoning the courage to contact the wildlife biologist who collared P-22 took months. He has captured and tagged jaguars in the Amazon and tigers in Sumatra, and he researches the impacts of urbanization and habitat fragmentation on California mountain lions. As a boy, his grandfather introduced him to nature. In an interview he stated being much more comfortable navigating if you drop me off in the middle of the woods than in the middle of the city. He also loves surfing. Evaluating the ways to resolve human-wildlife conflicts and employ safe capture and immobilization techniques to examine animals is something he takes to heart. I punched in his phone number several times, stopping short of including the last digit. Would he tell me P-22’s unearthly voice, able to be mistaken for a terrified human’s stifled scream like the one I pitch into my pillow, is its own beauty?

I was walking near a noisy roadway when the lion tracker returned my call. Heading to a quieter side street, I let flimsy questions fly before launching into ones about safe capture and immobilization techniques. After a bit he paused with his own inquiry. You know a lot about P-22. What is your interest in him? Familiarity with the Connectivity Study and concern about ecology and wildlife preservation was cited. Not mentioned: repetitious video viewing of P-22 ensnared under a crawl space belonging to affluent homeowners Jason and Paula Archinaco. More recently: watching stand-up comedian Bill Burr’s online counterpoint to the 60 Minutes’ segment featuring the quintessential fucking LA couple conversing about their former crawl space guest.

Jason Archinaco:You have a mountain lion in your house bro.” And so I says to him (the technician) a mountain lion? “Yeah man a mountain lion—came face-to-face—eye-to-eye with it.

Burr: (tonality: comedic absurdity verging on outrage) You know what I mean? He (Archinaco) looks like the leading man of a B movie. She’s got bleached blonde hair. She’s wearing fuck-me pumps. She’s on 60 Minutes wearing fuck-me pumps. Fucking hilarious, walking around done up to the nines.

Burr’s routine captures the underpinning of an animal in captivity and how nothing about it is funny. Often portrayed as that loud guy in the bar, he nails the hollowness of Archinaco’s “bro” this and “yeah man” that. Burr is considered a comedian’s comedian, a cynic and a contrarian. His distinctive voice offers a vernacular pinned to my own thoughts. 

My vested interest in P-22 was all encompassing. What was it like to hear his heartbeat? A motorcycle’s firecracker muffler muted the wildlife biologist’s answer. Then silence floated between us. At the end of a fundraiser event an attendee had asked him to describe holding a lion kit. Prior to that query he had told the audience that mountain lions are adaptable creatures; shy of people, elusive, difficult to track. A blue-eyed cub, born unaware of habitat fragmentation, is brown coated with black spots and bars on its tail. His response, in a quiet voice, was devoted to conservation and science, not sentiment. There was no snarling motorcycle to mum his words. Their fur is really soft.

You can call back whenever you want. His overture was in recognition of my own entrapment and my search for the corridor out. My wildlife tracker knows the unsayable of the wild. Perhaps imagined, between us, was camaraderie, though the difference is that I, and not he, now feel more comfortable in the middle of a city than in the woods. We both know an individual story can be used to tell a bigger one. Maybe too, what connects us is something more basic. We’re all wild animals, all living on the edge of extinction, trying to stay alive.

No other big cat has survived P-22’s improbable journey to Griffith Park. How did he get there? Known as “Carmageddon,” the closure of ten miles of the I-405 in both directions for two weekends in July 2011 to widen lanes likely enabled the puma to travel through the Sepulveda Pass between West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley and arrive unharmed at Griffith Park. Cars fatally striking mountain lions, along with urban sprawl, are a threat to the mountain lion population and their genetic diversity. The shutdown of the freeway, one of the busiest traffic corridors in the United States, suggests why P-22 is the only cougar to live crossing both the 405 and 101. 

Online I studied the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles’ interactive floor exhibition of P-22’s virtual crossing of ten zooming traffic lanes. Kids take running leaps over rush hour traffic, most without success. His harrowing journey over roadways was rare. Tiny pockets of areas outside of Los Angeles have mountain lions. Two are known to have made it across the 405, though on September 7, 2019, one of them was hit and killed by a car on his return. A wildlife overpass for mountain lions and other animals to safely travel between the Santa Monica Mountains and Simi Hills is in the works. Without this project, the California cougar population faces extinction. 

Having made it over the ten lanes of the 405 and six more of the 101, P-22 is now trapped with no way to get to the proposed overpass. Biologists have concluded that he recognizes the risk of the demonic roadways. He can jump fifteen feet in the air from a standstill, leap the span of three parked cars, and sprint up to 50 miles per hour, but he is boxed in, isolated, and facing continued encroachment of his habitat by housing developments and more roadways. Seeing or mating with another lion won’t happen.

At fifty-five, flustered at the umpteenth attempt to pen the pinnacle moment of my fragmented childhood, I typed phrases into a search bar: “Trunk trauma.” Torso injury mostly tied to motorcyclists and BMX bikers. “Tossed in the trunk.” Stash spot for kidnappers. Connected to college hazing deaths. “Fear.” “Stillness.” “Child.” Baby Jessica, an 18-month-old trapped in a well for fifty-eight hours in 1987. The perfect word combination needed to reveal a truth to make me feel less isolated. I am not the only one walled in by ineffable, suffocating feelings. 

Tossed in a trunk is the exact heartbeat when fledging survivorship kicked in. My word sequence in that sentence chases after clarity and faces it down. I fought for my life that day. Everything turned unfamiliar, devoid of certainty, as my thinking shifted to instinct. Language relies on rule compliance. Survival does not. It’s the unruly badlands. Reflexively, my body went dormant. Blood, or something electric, pulsated ten times faster in my arteries. The wildness inside of me made me want to claw for freedom, but I knew to remain still. Just breathe

The addition of “survival” and “safety” to the mishmash of word searches displayed the story of a mountain lion trapped in the crawl space of a luxury Southern California hillside home. 

As the online page populated with a 2015 image of the lion, my jaw dropped. A tattoo of the big cat’s glowing yellow-chartreuse eyes beaming outward from a confined, dark, pint-sized space inked the marrow of my bones. It was 2019, but I again became a little girl, excited to have a doll that actually peed, and another one who did back kicks and front kickstwirling on her toesDancerella-Dancerella. I believed in the magic of Christmas and A. A. Milne’s “Now We Are Six,” clever as clever—So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever. As more computerized pixilation appeared on the screen, however, I grew a year older, seven, in the trunk, full of fright.

Whispering to the screen. Hold your breath. Be still. Survival within extreme exhaustion is an all too familiar feeling for me. Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, spoke online about the times her life has been in real danger, without having control over the circumstances. I’ve had guns pointed at me, nearly drowned a few times, and once skidded an SUV off black ice nearly over the edge of the precipice in Idaho. All those times and each time this happened, time slowed and my thought processes got compressed and I got really logical and I didn’t see any time or reason to freak out at all. I understand her consolidation of thoughts in order to live. 

When numbed by too many hellish feelings, my body knows to become marble, statuesque. To overcome my past I search for a story to deconstruct powerlessness and terror. Could anyone else understand the fright of a coffin’s constraints? How do I tell of imprisonment without light and little air? Is there an example of what I was put through, so I don’t have to speak about it? Darkness can be examined, but it’s thorny to explain. I want acceptance and knowledge that you can survive difficult ordeals, without judgment, and without being swallowed up by what happened. 

Soon a bazillion browser tabs opened to the mountain lion’s narrative. Deep into the research rabbit hole I went.

April 13th, 2015. Home security technicians came face to face with P-22 in a crawl space. Immobilizing himself like deer he had hunted hundreds of times, the cougar hoped to vanish from view. To rest, he had selected a multi-level house in Los Feliz, a residential neighborhood adjacent to Griffith Park. Surprised and terrified workers installing an alarm system alerted the owners who called the city and, by mid-day, California Fish and Wildlife officials, along with reporters and film crews, arrived on the scene. 

P-22’s eyes were locked together in fear. Remain completely still. The dark dirt-bottomed, musty-cool concrete and plywood scented enclosure he came to rest in was no longer safe. Don’t struggle. I pleaded to the screen, knowing he couldn’t hear me. Just breathe.

During “operation kitty removal,” as news helicopters flew overhead, officials tried various aversive methods to coax or prod P-22 from his lair. The Department of Fish and Wildlife crew, not my beloved lion tracker who arrived later, poked him with a big stick, attached something to it to tickle him, lobbed tennis balls at the walls caging him, and banked shots around him with a beanbag gun. Nothing worked. He stayed unruffled, uttering neither a hiss nor a growl, just moved marginally and cordially from side to side. 

The 130-pound cat, 6-½-feet long, nearly six years old, ignored the noisy and agitating antics of hazing. P-22 favored meek micro-movements of ear flickers and eye blinks. Focused on TV ratings, the paparazzi frenzy operated without regard to the animal’s welfare. They exploited the rarity of sighting a stealth mountain lion, now cornered. Perhaps pushy journalists should be added to the list of human threats to wildlife, a register that already includes roadways, pollution, habitat loss, climate change, and rat poison. 

Jason and Paula Archinaco’s security system was being installed to keep predators out of their teetering tall residence in the Los Angeles hills with a commanding downtown view. Perhaps before the outlandish media circus ensued, the Archinaco’s sent an email to their lawyer on retainer checking for potential litigation and a Snapchat to their contractor to be sure that work permits were up-to date, summoned a stylist, a manicurist and a publicist, slapped on Crest 3D Whitening Strips, and instructed their housekeeper to go to the bakery and return with eye-catching muffins and coffee cake to be placed inside glass tiered stands of different heights for display on the sizable, shiny granite counter—all prior to ringing up the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

That Monday, early afternoon, journalists lined up to chat with the TV-ready LA couple. Camera crews rolled in and sought every conceivable story angle, hitting hard on the “danger” posed to the couple and the neighborhood. Would the pretty kitty attack them? Tear them limb from limb? There were no shortages of strategies used to coax the feline out from the crawl space. P-22, an animal known by over 40 English names—mountain lion, cougar, panther, puma, painter, catamount, ghost cat, yellow screamer—was in their sights. They wanted the money shot, the nanosecond moment of uncertainty when a lion looks you in the eye, then leaps the length of a school bus into a thicketed landscape. They longed for the breaking news headline of survival, a close call of danger, where the adrenalin-rush is a welcoming and energizing high, and the film clip goes viral.

Things I’ve done to slay fear, hoping to gain verifiable confidence: estranged myself from my family, moved to Manhattan, pursued acting, took a trapeze class, solo climbed Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, attended a writing workshop in Italy, walked myself down the wedding aisle, held my dying dog till his heart stopped, booked and did The Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb, ate an oyster, listened to the voicemail of my Dad’s dying words, and a few more things. But it wasn’t until I scaled Cathedral Rock in Sedona that something inside me shifted. That became a critical juncture in my life. 

The name “Cathedral” had felt spiritual and came with a promised spectacular view. So I took my fifty-four year old bones and headed up the Sedona trail referenced as short but strenuous. The 1.3-mile journey, embracing an elevation of seven hundred and forty feet, includes sections that require a vertical climb. Wearing casual sneakers, white sweatshirt, bandana headband, yoga pants, and a canvas tote with my lunch over my shoulder, I’d romanticized a picnic upon reaching the top, but soon realized this wasn’t my brainiest idea. The red sandstone was slippery, hand and footholds were barely ample or accessible, and those I passed coming down the mountain seemed exhilarated, defeated, exhausted, or dazed. 

Did I want to give up? Stop way before even eyeing the plateau? Fuck yes. Had I finally confronted the secret riddle embedded within the dearly held phrase fear tells us to live? Was I now interrogating the flip side of what that proposed? If fear had taught me to live, what did it mean to live? Am I capable of being alive without being afraid? Does fear have to be my center of gravity?

Dehydrated, I made it to the peak and pulled out my phone to snap photos that I’d later post on social media. Looking over the edge I thought about Philippe Petit, the French high-wire artist who walked between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center without wearing a harness or having a safety net. For forty minutes, suspended more than 1,300 feet in the air, he went playfully back and forth, even lying down on the wire to watch “friendly clouds” pass above him. It was truly a daredevil act, something he understood was out of human scale, but he was pulled toward doing it. 

In 2013, Petit wrote Why knot? It’s all about how to tie more than sixty ingenious, useful, beautiful, lifesaving, and secure knots. Sting, the musician, wrote a tiny forward for his book. I don’t wish to quote the passage, only its entry point: 

For what is a rope but a story, a plot, 

A beginning, an end, and in the middle a knot. 

Petit relates the importance of knots. Successful knots in ropes, lines and cables have kept him alive. More than that, knots are poetry. The high-wire act of my life has been untangling the knots of my childhood. Writing the trunk trauma. Seeing and holding the seven year old who saw her brother burn like a human candle. Telling the child who lived through countless “like the time” sequences of violence and abuse that she is precious and her life is worth living. 

Trekking up Cathedral Rock was an uncertain venture and soon enough I slipped and blindly landed onto loose rocks. From that point on I knew it would be a scrappy, ungraceful and treacherous climb, but I’d do it because that’s what I do. When I reached the top, panting and exhausted, I realized additional skills were required to get safely back to the bottom. Perspiring and covered in blood red dirt, with shoddy nerves and threadbare muscles, to push up against and bully fear felt overly challenging. If fear guided the way I lived, what would it mean to live without fear? To wake up to the earthen smells of my puppy’s paws and look onto the bay and see reflections of the glistening girdled-in glass buildings. Just breathe and feel freedom.

At 1 a.m. wildlife experts cleared everyone from the area surrounding the crawl space. After fifteen hours, with glimmering eyes and no desire to be combative, the composed P-22 had worn out the cavalry of media. Even the owners of the house who gave countless interviews lost interest. Everyone was tired and the opening where the lion was suspected to have entered was opened and left unguarded. Nobody had counted on his ability to adapt and not be reactive. He had remained quiet and patient, containing his fear with a collective calm of a harmless curled up house cat. Then without a single sighting, he slipped out into the night, returning back to Griffith Park one block away.

Doing a series of cartwheels after being liberated from the car trunk was, like P-22, my way of slipping out of sight. Turning faster and faster, with arms used as spokes, I told myself that I was fearless, when in truth I hoped to rapidly combust and become interstellar dust. I wanted to run past fear the way the Road Runner dashed past Wile E. Coyote with a speed that seemed to collapse time. P-22 and I were both ghost cats wanting to vanish unseen into the pockets of our lives.

When most humans are asleep, P-22 slinks through gullies and thickets. The lure of independence and safety from other male lions led him from the Santa Monica Mountains to a place that now traps him in an urban enclosure. He does his best to live a normal life while encountering conflict all around him. He sirens a collapsing ecosystem and teaches us how to be a neighbor in places where we may feel we don’t belong.

P-22 is drawn to Forest Lawn Memorial Park by deer and other prey eating flowers off the gravesites of Bette Davis, Buster Keaton and Brittany Murphy. He prowls and kills in a landscape surrounded by willow and sycamore trees and can’t escape his loneliness. To attract female mountain lions, he will urinate on a scat pile covered with dirt to leave a scent. Sometimes, standing on his hind legs, he’ll claw a tree trunk as a message for a mate, or hoping for a date night, he’ll chirp or purr, but not roar. Mountain lions can’t roar. Their larynxes, ossified with special folds, prevent it. Mostly they communicate with no sound at all. Though I find small-scale silences can speak loudly. 

During the disorienting hours prior to a Manhattan sunrise, I’m awakened by the flute-like whistle-cries of a roving metallic beast. Before recognizing the rusted moans and creaks of a garbage truck making its excessive stops on potholed streets, my foggy mind mistakes the belched bellows and hisses as coming from a wild animal. Stirring inside of me is the recognition that I’m trapped on an island crowded with over 8 million people. In this city of legendary landmarks and historical sites, where countless skyscrapers slice and dice clouds and right-angled intersections force everyone to negotiate crossroads of stop and go, there’s no cattail patch in which to hide.

Fall 2019. Sitting at my desk, 26 floors above street level, my eye catches a bird’s wing. It’s not a pigeon. The rufous tail and large body belong to a red-tailed hawk situated on the window ledge. He’s chosen a corner to perch on, providing me with a bi-fold glimpse of his leisure. Hoping to capture his image, I hold my breath and listen to the scraping of his hunting tool talons as I slowly reach for my iPhone. I move closer to gain a better view of his curved greenish yellow beak, but he spots me and I’m certain he’ll fly away. Recalling Helen Macdonald’s discussion about the playfulness of birds in her grief memoir H is for Hawk, I initiate peekaboo with the bird and we lock into a brief game of “I do, or don’t, see you.” He then balances himself on a single claw, ruffling and preening his feathers before gazing outward. Appearing to be levitating above Manhattan rooftops, brick buildings and trumpeting traffic, he urges me to place more space between my thoughts. Then a sudden rapid rotation of his head combines with eyes that puff up to indicate mastery and satisfaction that flaunt, “I see you” and, “Beat you at peekaboo,” before he flies away.

Thirty-five days later he returns. This time he stares at me and doesn’t flinch. Convinced he’s there as a courier, I can’t turn away. For a long time we lock eyes before he let’s go, dropping into the turbulent air, his non-flapping wings spanning perhaps four-feet. This time his “I see you” takes me back to high school. The whole town knew so much about my family—the violence, the drama, and both my father’s brother and Nick, committing suicide. I hated it and I couldn’t wait to leave home.

Birds follow a path known only to themselves. Their flights are scarcely traceable. Of birds, poet Patrick Lane wrote: Only when they are frightened do they break their patterns of travel, and that shattering of habit is more about survival than chaos. As it is in the world of all species, such as big cats and birds, so it is in ours. 

Fall 2020. Clouds drift by, helicopter pilots wave, and another red-tail hawk appears and lands on my glass-paneled Miami balcony where forty-stories high makes weather a work of art in our living room. Rightfully, birds perch there, but the transparency of glass box architecture is problematic for them. Deciding not to stay, the hawk hop-walks a few steps, then flies straight into the glass and stumbles backwards before attempting it again. Though the glass is framed, it’s not visible to his eye. So he steps onto the thin milk-colored piping, spreads his wings and fluster flaps trying to break through what is see-through. His open beak mirrors my mouth as we both hyperventilate. What do these hawks want to tell me? Why do we keep crossing paths? Each time he attempts to escape his entrapment he fails and it’s hurtful to watch.

Calling management, I ask them to hurry and bring the pool skimmer as I watch the concussed hawk doing a pogo-prance toward a tight corner that offers shade. Glass and black floor tiling traps in the heat and creates a broiling birdcage. My barking dog, a glide-by turkey vulture spotting prey, and the hawk’s weaponry talons makes it too risky to open the sliding door to assist and renders me powerless. Prayer is an option. I’m not without spiritual beliefs. 

I tell the hawk to jump up onto the tall table that’s bolted to the terrace. He chooses the pedestal stand, leaving him eye-level with the sky and water, but still with a crystal-clear obstacle. Again he takes off and I scream as his breath smears the glass where he hits. Motionless he sits, shits and watches the vulture soar-circle. Observing the hawk acknowledges my own way of handling fear. Seeing this doesn’t make it easier to process pain. Where the fuck is the pool skimmer for me to scoop him up and over to safety? He’s lost perspective and is fading fast. I’m demonstrating and yelling for him to raise his gaze. Look above the railing. Up, up, up. Look up.

 P-22 could not have been prepared for a life corralled inside housing developments, a public park and frenetic freeways. His existence in Los Angeles has turned him into a fundraiser-prop for animal-wildlife coexistence and helped launch The Liberty Canyon wildlife crossing, a proposed vegetated overpass spanning the Ventura Freeway and Agoura Road in Agoura Hills, California. Once built, it will extend 200 feet above 10 lanes of highway, connect the northern Simi Hills and southern Santa Monica Mountains, and become the largest wildlife overpass in the world near a megacity. According to a University of California study, without this crossing California mountain lions will be extinct in 15 years. The $87 million proposed bridge is on track for groundbreaking in 2021 with anticipated completion by 2023. Construction will take place at night and avoid lengthy shutdowns of the 101. While the current human-caused severed connectivity will be resolved for future mountain lions, P-22 will remain trapped, forever cut off from other big cats. Griffith Park is both his island and his source of isolation.

Picking up my dog stops his barking. Backing away from the window seems to give the hawk space to think. Weighing at most three pounds doesn’t make him look small or tame. Red-tailed hawks have a more aggressive sound than other raptors. They live in a variety of habitats, including deserts and cities. From a hundred feet up in the air they can spot a mouse and dive 120 mph to catch it. Not parrot-like, as in Polly wants a cracker, the bird on my balcony looks at me with an expression of wanting to puncture and wound.

I identify, as does P-22, with the feral and frustrating feeling of having to remain still to seek safety while the wildness fuels other emotions. We’ve each known the need to be still, a faint whisper in tall grass, to creep, crawl, cling to the ground, and let our instincts lead us to our own inner sanctum. Running, dodging and weaving until exhaustion sets in, we need to find a place to rest as we move ghost-like across ribbons of highways and endless sky.

The hawk stares at me, not gamely, but now with P-22’s exact expression when trapped in the crawl space. It’s something more than terror. It’s the seeking of shutdown, the torpor mode of active lethargy gravely gripping the gut instincts of survival. I’m no longer screaming. Tears, held back for too long, are splashing down my cheeks. The hawk rotates his head then looks up-up-up—upwards—timing his launch to beat out the turkey vulture.

Epoch Press
Epoch Press

Epoch Press is an independent press dedicated to publishing exceptional creative nonfiction.
We publish truth in ink.

3 Comments

  1. Robin Logan
    3 May, 2021 / 9:46 pm

    I am full of emotions trying to figure the vest way to process each of them.
    How one human can live and go through life with so much tragedy and fear is remarkable.
    Yvonne is an amazing lady with so much talent. Fantastic writing. This is a true winner.

  2. 27 May, 2021 / 2:04 pm

    yvonne this is an eloquent piece..really like the part where she said,”We’re all wild animals, all living on the edge of extinction, trying to stay alive.”thank you epoch for sharing this.

  3. Mik
    19 June, 2021 / 7:09 am

    Wow deep. This line “Growing up witnessing steady acts of violence, going to bed not knowing if Mom would be alive in the morning, robs you of your childhood” hit me somewhere deep inside my own trauma.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *