A Note From a Man in a Tree

Charlie Houghton. March 16th, 1993. 10:30 p.m, roughly.

I'm glad I decided to dictate my notes into a tape recorder during the expedition. I doubt I could hold a pen steady right now. My leg is black from the ankle to just above the knee. My left leg, sorry. I made a splint out of two tent poles and strips from a t-shirt that I cut up with a knife. I have elevated it on a plastic carton, but it keeps swelling. There are puddles of blood on the wooden floor of the treehouse that have not dried and are quite sticky. There is an insect crawling on my face. Maybe I shouldn't have gone back to the treehouse in my condition. Maybe I should have taken the four-wheeler out of the forest to find a doctor immediately. But my leg is broken and my painkillers were in the treehouse and after I took the pills I couldn't bring myself to climb back down the rope ladder. In any case, it is night now. The forest is black. I don't know if the tape recorder can pick it up, but I'm listening to the hum of the Coleman lanterns in the treehouse, the stream flowing nearby, and the frogs and crickets. The insect is still on my face. It is a beetle of some sort. He is tickling my cheek.

A short list of animals believed by scientists to be mythical that were eventually proven to be real: The mountain gorilla. The Hoan Kiem turtle. The okapi. The platypus. Today I came closer than ever to proving the existence of the two-tailed wallyback, which lives in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It is a truly fantastical creature. It is small and grey, has a rounded torso, pointed ears with black tips, two orange stripes that span the entire length of its body, and, of course, two long bushy tails. Its gliding mechanics appear to be similar to those of other species of flying squirrel, which I have seen on television, and in zoos.

The treehouse is a wooden platform twelve feet long and ten feet wide with a green tarp stretched overhead. The tarp can be dropped down to form walls in case of rain, but it is usually kept up so that the treehouse can serve as an observation post. The entire structure is built between the trunks of two red alder trees, fairly young, each barely forty feet high. The tree from three years ago was also an alder tree, but it was a white alder, not a red alder. I could tell from the leaves.

When I close my eyes, for some reason I see a mola mola staring at me. It is the largest bony fish in the world, weighs over two-thousand pounds, is six feet long on average, and is almost round. It looks like an enormous fish-head with fins but no body. It gives an impression of sublime silliness. They had mola mola at the Monterey Bay Aquarium when I worked there as a sanitation engineer. Even with such a lowly title, it was the greatest work I have ever had the opportunity to do, until now. Almost two million people visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium every year just to look and wonder at the fantastical┬┐the fantastical creatures. Everyone there shares in an experience of pure wonder. I bought all of the books they had at the gift shop during the time I worked there. I even have some of the books in the treehouse with me now.

When I was let go due to a misunderstanding with a seahorse biologist, I moved up the coast and worked sporadically, at menial jobs. My constitution could not stand the miserable places I saw and the miserable people I knew there. There was no sense of wonder. I don't have the energy to fully describe this degrading time, but suffice to say that people despised each other and no one had dreams for anything that went past the next few days. How is it that so few of them tried to end it like I did? I took long walks in the woods to escape from these people, and sometimes I couldn't bear to return to town and would sleep in the woods.

I remember having an incredible toothache on the night I did it. I'm not sure why I'm mentioning that. Maybe it's the pain that I'm feeling in my broken leg right now that makes me think of it. Also, I can't really remember very much about the night I decided to do it besides having a toothache. No, actually, I also remember stealing the polypropylene rope from the marina. But the important thing is what happened after I kicked the box out from under my feet. First I went into an involuntary panic as my body realized that it was dying. My legs thrashed around and my fingers tried to dig between the rope and my neck, but it was no use. My mind began to greedily take in everything around me. Time slowed down. There was a green and yellow caterpillar nibbling on a leaf. There was a cardinal looking around from a tree branch, a rabbit path that led into the grass from the gravel walking trail, a log covered in black and green fungi. The patterns of the bark on the trees around me were unbelievably intricate. Everything was hyperreal, and I saw colors that I have never seen before or since. I remember thinking, how lucky we are to be conscious! We could be rocks or stars, but instead we see! Then it glided past me. There was no mistaking it. A two-tailed wallyback, no more than five feet away. I could make out the two tails and the orange stripes distinctly when it made a gentle turn in midair. It landed on a nearby tree and began crawling across a branch toward a pine cone as the darkness squeezed the world flat.

Someone must have found me and cut me down. The next thing I remember is being in a mental institution, which was full of people whose thoughts were so wild and intense that it became difficult for them to survive in the outside world. My closest friend was Herman, a bipolar graduate student, who I told about the two-tailed wallyback I had seen. He had heard stories about it before, in the same context that you hear about sasquatch or chupacabras (or platypi), and explained to me from an evolutionary standpoint why such a creature could never come into existence, and explained to me from a logical standpoint that if it actually existed, there would probably be some conclusive evidence of it by now. He argued that what I had seen was a hallucination, since I had very limited oxygen-flow to my brain at the time I was supposed to have seen it. He also made note of the fact that I was in a mental institution. I couldn't come up with any rational response to his arguments, but I couldn't agree with him, either. I am not an educated man. But I have seen something wonderful, and I will bring it back.

This is the twenty-seventh day of the expedition. Just a week ago, I was beginning to doubt my choice of location. I had hoped that I would capture a live two-tailed wallyback in one of my artificial nests. As my earlier recordings have indicated, my nests have only captured common tree squirrels, mice, and small birds. Five days ago I caught my first glimpse of what appeared to be a two-tailed wallyback, flying overhead while I was checking my nests. I lost sight of it in the branches, but I walked along the ground under its gliding path and found droppings that I saved in a plastic bag. I watched the trees carefully over the next few evenings and made sure to bring my camera when I went out to check the nests. Although I saw some encouraging movement, I didn't get another clear view of the two-tailed wallyback, and certainly didn't capture anything conclusive on film.

Earlier tonight, while I was eating MREs in the treehouse, I saw one glide between two trees not very far from me. I grabbed my camera and took some photos, but in the dark it was difficult to distinguish the unique features that would prove it was truly a two-tailed wallyback. I didn't dare turn on the flash. Then, the animal glided again, landing on a tree even closer to me. I decided that I would try to capture it. I grabbed a sweep net from my supplies. I left the wooden platform and walked carefully out on a branch of one of the alder trees, grabbing nearby branches with my free hand for balance. I moved closer and closer to the little man. It must have seen me, but it remained perfectly still. I moved from my branch to a branch on the tree the wallyback was perched on. I moved cautiously toward the animal, trying not to frighten it off. I was only a few feet away from it when it scrambled up the trunk and tried to glide away. I lunged after it with my net, holding onto a thin branch with my other hand. It swerved in time to avoid being caught in the net, but the wooden rim of the net struck it hard across the middle. It swerved off course, struck a branch, and plummeted to the ground.

I heard a crack and felt suddenly weightless. I held the hand that was supposed to be holding onto the tree in front of my face. The piece of branch that had broken off was still in my fist. Time slowed down, and I reflected on the fact that the inside of the branch was brown instead of green. The branch was dead. The tree was dead. If I had not been in such a rush to chase after the two-tailed wallyback, I would have realized that before. I would have cautiously tested my weight on the branch when I moved over to the new tree. My face smashed into something hard, and then my elbow, and then my back. Time sped back up to normal and then just kept going. The last fifteen feet were a freefall. I heard an unusual crack, not the crack of a branch breaking, and screamed louder than I have ever screamed in my life. My scream was answered by a screech, and I saw a rush of dark movement nearby. The movement solidified into an barred owl, which had swooped to the ground to grab the injured two-tailed wallyback. As it flew away, I could see that the limp wallyback's belly was punctured by one of the owl's talons. I lay there and wept.

Eventually, my injuries forced me to move. I had, have, a deep laceration in my arm, a number of smaller slashes and cuts, a missing tooth, bruised or broken ribs, and a broken leg. Before I went back to the treehouse, I crawled over to the spot where the owl had snatched the wallyback away. There were spots of blood on the leaves on the ground. I took a plastic bag out of my pocket with my right hand, after checking to make sure it was free of blood that might contaminate the sample, and carefully put the leaves inside. Then I went back to the treehouse and used the last of my energy to pull myself up the rope ladder. I apologize for the long gaps of silence that have accompanied this account. I keep dropping in and out of consciousness. The noise around me has been reduced to a steady buzz that seems to come from inside my skull. I have been wounded terribly, but I don't think I will die. Tomorrow, I will climb back down the rope ladder and go back to town, with the blood and the droppings as evidence of what I have seen.