Then the note dropped, in a descending wail that tapered smoothly at first, then developed a sawtooth texture like a gigantic zipper being drawn open. It stayed low for a while, then ramped steeply up in pitch until it reached that same penetrating note again. The cycle continued. By now I'd realized what it was. Someone had activated a device that our older generations may recall from their youth: A device called an "air raid siren."
When the pitch changed between the extreme high and low notes, the reverberations of the alarm became discernable, as separate from the sound of the alarm itself. During those times, I could sense the incredible breadth of the sound. It was echoing up and down the mountainside, and between the steep canyon walls cut by the irregular path of the Yuba river, in every corner of the wilderness, at almost exactly the same time. The sense of space and distance it communicated was greater than anything I'd experienced at any concert, in any arena. (Yes, even that stadium Pink Floyd show in the early 90's)
Eventually the siren wound down and faded away. Just after it vanished, every dog in town erupted into an answering howl, all at once. Their cacophony was amusingly mundane, almost quaint, by comparison.
Despite a zillion luminous stars, the night was still black, with a claustraphobic feel brought on by the immediate edge of the forest, hemming the buildings in close around the few electric streetlamps. I walked to the front of the General Store at the center of town - a trek of about 30 yards - and listened to the chattering of the people seated at the open-air tables of the bar across the street. The drunken concensus was that the siren was the local equivalent of a fire alarm.
I walked up the street with my beloved, and observed that the doors to the fire station were open. We also saw a medical rescue truck with the red emblem of a fire department go speeding past on the town's one street. The emergency lights on the truck were spinning, but the only noise it made came from the engine in high gear as it roared up Highway 49. The fire departments here, and in towns nearby, were rushing to the scene of something. It made sense to me that they used such a powerful siren for their fire alarm: A fire out here in these woods is absolutely everyone's business. No one should be sleeping through it.
The black edge of the forest hung like a velvet curtain in the back of a hushed indoor theatre, and the streetlamps lit the city like a stage. The air was pleasantly cool, but not cold, making the disorienting illusion complete. If a spotlight suddenly revealed a gang of jerky animatronic bears playing a country-western tune on the stoop of some house, or one of the cabins lit up from the inside to show a robotic Abe Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address ... I wouldn't have been surprised. It would have fit right in with the course of events.
We made yellow curry that night, and lit candles, and sang a song.
That night I dreamed that my father had called a "family meeting" after dinner, and we all gathered around the table. He pointed at an object that looked like a staplegun, in the center of the table, placed on the white tablecloth amongst the empty dinner plates and dirty napkins. "Today I found a gun in [my older sister]'s room. I don't know why she thinks she needs a gun, or where she got it. I think she may have been planning to kill herself with it, at some point. I'm bringing this up here and now because everyone needs to know about it. And we all need to figure out what to do."
We talked haltingly for a while, but I don't remember what the words were. My friend Zach was there at the table, for some reason. He dropped his forehead onto his palm, expessing his frustration and fatigue. Eventually we agreed to break up the meeting, and reconvene later with our various suggestions. Everyone left the table except for my father and I.
I reached out and picked up the gun. It could be folded in over itself so that it looked like a relatively harmless cigarette lighter. "You know," I said, "if we all leave the table, then eventually one person is going to sneak back in here and take the gun. They won't confess to stealing it, they'll find a better hiding place for it, ... and any decision we make will be completely pointless."
My Dad sighed. "I see your point, kid," he said. "So let me just say, that if that gun should happen to disappear between now and then, I wouldn't be surprised, nor should anyone else be." He winked at me, and walked out of the room.
I put the gun in my own pocket, and left the house. I began walking around downtown Berkeley, looking for some place to dispose of the gun, but no matter what location I considered, I could always imagine some way that the gun would be discovered, by a desparate homeless person, or a hapless group of teenagers, or some vicious thug. I didn't want to transfer this burden somewhere else, I wanted to eliminate it.
I woke up, still fretting over the dilemma.