Short fiction: 1917-2015

The California condor has been at the center of or referred to in short pieces of fiction for over a century. This post looks at 6 such works.

In the early 20th century, scientists excavating the “tar pits” of southern California found the skeletons of the ancestors of today’s California condor. W D Mathew’s “The Demon of the Black Pools” is based on these discoveries. The 4-page story, which mentions “condors” only once, appeared in the November 1917 issue of Overland Monthly magazine.

Mathew imagines a human hunter considering possible prey: the camels, mastodons, and other animals that lived thousands of years ago in what is now Los Angeles. The hunter also notes the locales with pools of liquid asphalt:

… the place had an ugly reputation … It was reported to be haunted by mysterious earth demons … who would reach up from below and, seizing the feet of the unfortunate animals who ventured into their lair, would drag it down slowly, but irresistibly, struggling and screaming, into the depths below.

The hunter observes ground sloths becoming trapped in the asphalt pools. A saber-tooth tiger attacks an immobilized sloth and becomes trapped. Then the same for a wolf pack.

The screams of the terrified animals had been heard far and wide over the valley, and the sight of their struggles had attracted the great birds that were soaring high above in the air. One by one they came dropping down – vultures, condors, eagles … and formed a hopping flapping ring, pressing forward to share in the expected feast.

Of course, those birds eventually become trapped. The story concludes:

… all were dragged down into the sticky depths, until all cries were hushed and all movement ceased.

After that, Silence – the silence of many centuries.

“The Radium of Romance” by Dallas Lore Sharp appeared in the July 1918 issue of Atlantic Monthly. Sharp was a Boston University English professor known for his articles and books about wildlife.

This piece is a series of vignettes. This is observational, introspective writing weighted by the 1st World War. I am not actually certain whether this is fiction or memoir.

Here is a paragraph that provides a sense of Sharp’s theme and perspective:

There is a deposit, an infinitesimal deposit it may be, of the radium of romance in the slag of all souls. Call it by other names, – optimism, idealism, religion, – you still leave it undefined; an inherent, essential element, harder to separate from the spiritual dross of us than radium from its carnotite; a kind of atomic property of the spirit which breaks up its substance; which ionizes, energizes, and illumines it.

Later, and without any transition, Sharp writes:

We were passing through New York City recently, when I stopped at the Zoölogical Park, and taking the boys, went straight to the aviary, to the condors’ cage, and looking up at the great birds dozing overhead, I called ‘General! General! General!’ There were three condors in the cage, if I remember, and I had never seen any of them before….

Here were three stories, three humped, uncouth, repulsive creatures that nobody knew until I came by; and I knew only General – that behind his vast, inactive wings was silently folded a tale of tragedy and romance.

Sharp proceeds to tell the true story of General the California condor, taken from the wild and raised by William and Irene Finley. Sharp, who refers to the conservationist William Finley as his friend, was looking for light in the dark of war and found some light in a story of a California condor and humans.

Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel’s “In the Shadow of Condors” is introduced as

Fiction based on studies which I made and older people’s recollection of earlier times in the Cholame area [of California]….

I have spent much time and thought on this story about the destruction of our natural resources and wildlife. It has been devastating since my arrival in California in 1936.

This story tells of Hilda Foreman, who regularly lectures about environmental concerns. At one point she reminisces about her childhood:

Sometimes a shadow would pass over us. We would look up and see a giant condor soaring in the crystal air…. I tell you that it was a sight a child could never forget. It is memories like those that keep me going with this work.

At the story’s end, Hilda Foreman says:

If enough of us had wanted condors and clear skies and acres of flowers, more than unbridled greed, we could have had them. We have to pick up the remnants and work for the future.

McDaniel’s story appeared in the November-December 1989 issue of Broomstick magazine and is accompanied by a drawing of people observing a flying condor.

My favorite of the 6 pieces here is the lovely “Condor Dreams” by Gerald W Haslam, a highly-regarded California author. This story was published in the collection of Haslam’s short stories titled Condor Dreams and Other Fictions (University of Nevada Press 1994).

Haslam 1994 - cover

This is from the story’s beginning:

Nearly fifty years before, on a morning as sunny and clear as this one was foggy and obscure, he had stood next to his father in this same field and seen for the first time a wonder soaring high above – a vast black shape like death itself. Frightened, he moved closer to his father. Then he noticed the bird’s bare head and its vast wings. Those dark sails were cored with white, their farthest feathers spread like fingers grasping sky. It appeared to belong to another, sterner time.

“Look, Daniel,” his father said, “that’s a California condor. See its wings, they never move. It rides the wind.”

“It rides the wind? How, Papa?”

“Ahhh . . . it is just a wind rider, I guess.”

“Can I be one?”

“Only in your dreams, Daniel.”

This a story of farming and farming failure. It is also a story of Native American belief:

“That guy, one time he told me that this life we think is real isn’t real at all. He said we live only in the dreams of condors. He said that us Indians were condors’ good dreams, and you pale people were their nightmares.”

I experience “Condor Dreams” as a story of solace and hope.

The Romanian writer and political dissident Leonard Oprea immigrated to the USA in 1999. Soon after he completed The Book of Theophil Magus or 40 Tales about Man (1stBooks 2003).

Oprea 2003 - cover

The 40 tales are each distinct and so, for this post, I consider one of them, “The Tale of the Last Condor”, as a short story. This is not straightforward fiction. My sense is that the author was imagining a competition between birds who thought of themselves as the “last” condor. Here’s the conclusion:

The last California condor stood on his cliff some thousands of feet above the ocean. His piercing look was tearing the horizon – when sadness enveloped him.

Sweet and bitter.

Like the torn blood-red mist around him.

Sarah K Castle’s “Mutant Stag at Horn Creek” was published in Loosed upon the World: The Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction (Saga 2015). In this adventure set in a climate-changed future, the world is a much different place than the one we know today. But there are still California condors in the Grand Canyon and they play an important role in the story:

A couple California condors soared so high above us, they looked small against the Canyon’s walls.

On a trail, hikers encounter condors around a carcass. One of the birds defends the food:

I swear those big, black wings touched the canyon walls on both sides. They could’ve wrapped around the two of us twice. The long feathers at its wingtips spread out like too many fingers. The damn thing was way too close.

I won’t write more about “Mutant Stag at Horn Creek” as I don’t want to give anything away. This is a story that’s both fanciful and rooted in reality, and blends the wild and the civilized. It’s a story worth seeking out and reading.

The 6 stories above are strong evidence that the California condor has long inspired writers of fiction.

Leonard Oprea’s “The Tale of the Last Condor” was mentioned previously in the post Celebrities.

For more short fiction concerning the California condor, see the posts A bird’s perspective, Boys’ Life: 1942-1999, and Canyon John.