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The Essay
Show #452
Bitterns of the Apocalypse
David Gunn

In most versions of the Chinese calendar, 2004 is the Year of the Monkey. All over East Asia, macaques and langurs are for a year allowed to roam free. In Beijing Old City, several baboons have even run for and won middle management positions in municipal government. And for this one year out of every twelve, restaurants are forbidden to serve the popular working class delicacy, monkey brain burritos. A slurry-like soy substitute is available, but it doesn't often have many takers.

There is no monkey on the calendar of the Perfect Peking Noodle Hut in Propolis, Oklahoma, however. For in this restaurant at least, 2004 is the Year of the Bird--and not just any old bird. The eatery's wall calendar features a full color picture of a Chinese Paranoia of Battle helicopter--a whirleybird. The plucky little aircraft is shown shooting laser-guided missiles at an infuriated Godzilla, who is this close to snatching the helicopter in his jaws. Seated in the booth directly beneath the calendar and nursing a bowl of Early Bird Worm Soup is Beano Bengaze, the preternatural musical shaman. The soup is the third in a succession of dim sum that the waitress has placed on his Naugahyde-scented table. He has already sampled the "Lotus Pin Cushion" and "Mortar of the Great Wall" and survived them both, though the pins had twice painfully lanced his tongue and he could feel the mortar sticking to his arteries like a wet tongue to a frozen railroad track. Now he awaits, with some trepidation, the "Rheumy Carbuncle of Guangzhou," a dish unique to the Noodle Hut. A sudden roar emanates from the picture, and Beano glances up to see the helicopter engulfed in a ball of Godzilla-flame, hurtling towards Earth. The scene is so realistic that Beano holds his breath for the moment that the aircraft will crash. The more he stares at the picture, the more a hazy memory of a conflagration-filled battle of the distant past trickles back into his subconscious--a memory that, till now, he had successfully repressed. He was young, just out of shaman school, and he had no visible means of income. However, thanks to his burgeoning connections to the spirit world, his invisible means were quite good. They included unlawfully trafficking in rare birds--illegal eagles, he called them. The scheme was on a small scale, but lucrative, and it might have continued, except ...

The waitress bangs the plate of carbuncle down on his table, jolting Beano back to the present. He nods to the waitress--"Vireo," according to her nametag, and the accompanying icon does show a small bird gleefully decapitating a locust--and notices for the first time a Godzilla-like demeanor about her, as if she, too, could spit fire at any moment. The carbuncle's aroma draws his attention to the entree before him, which festers like a science experiment gone a bit awry. He prods it with his fork, and is dismayed to see the tines dissolve upon contact. He turns to say something to the waitress, but she is nowhere in sight. He stands up to look for her and is mildly nonplused to discover he is alone in the restaurant. Beano feels a sudden blast of heat on his neck, revivifying another memory thread of that fiery battle long ago. Then he realizes that he is standing directly in front of the picture. He turns to look, but Godzilla and the Paranoia of Battle helicopter have also disappeared. In their place is a pair of archaeopteryx engaged in a courtship ritual. The female is pecking the male with little baobab needles that it clutches in its maw. The heat that Beano feels seems to come from the embers of the tree on which both ancient birds are crouching.

Not wanting to offend the waitress, Beano dumps the carbuncle into a potted plant, unaware that his action will forever change both the eating habits of the plant as well as the life of a young florist's assistant, ably described in the 1960 documentary film, "The Little Shop of Horrors."

Time passes. The fifth, sixth and seventh courses--"Plover Potpie," "Skull and Crossbills," and "Bitterns of the Apocalypse," respectively--grace Beano's palate, though he is so lost in sweltering memories of the past that he is unaware of any gustatory sensation. He only comes to his senses when the final offering is placed before him: "Robin's-Egg Blue Cheesecake." And it isn't the food that captures his attention, but rather the appearance of the archaeopteryx which, in one fell swoop, swipes the dessert from his plate, then disappears back into the picture.

Beano suddenly finds himself back in the heat of that long-ago battle, at a moment in time that exists in the interstices between past and present, a place that we, alas, cannot go. No, we must stay in the here and now, which is the year 4701 in the Chinese calendar, and Episode 452 in the Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar datebook, a chronicle of consecutive Saturday afternoons that goes back almost nine years now, long enough for you, our listening audients, to correctly surmise that the next batch of noises you hear will arise from the very depths of Kalvos.