The late summer light spread long and golden, stretching the shadow of the baskets far across the small red composite court tucked in the hollow of the hillside. The court, and the park around it, rose out of the quiet Center neighborhood of Portland, far from the tireless players of the North and Northeast. It wasn't busy even at the busiest times.
Today, near sunset, it was almost empty, just a single aimless shooter drifting from side to side, throwing up shots at random. The tall douglas-firs softened the noise from the play area up the hill so only the flat slap of ball on court bounced off the walls of the little canyon.
Eight years of experience told the big female teratorn that the dead camel was a safe meal. The cold morning light showed that the haunches and most of the exposed flanks were gone, haggled away probably by whatever had killed it; smilodon, most likely.
It wasn't just the pattern of the damage to the camel's corpse, but where it lay in the little clearing; not in the fringing brush but close, and without the signs of a long chase and catch.
The teratorn, had it been capable of recognizing what passed for its thoughts, would have felt them as a sort of smug satisfaction in its ability to recognize the leavings of the large North American predators of her time - the western edge of North America roughly one million years before today.
lion or a pack of direwolves wouldn't have left the carcass until it was dismembered and reduced to tatters, while a short-faced bear would probably have dragged it further away into the thickets down by the sullen stream that flowed across the short-grass prairie. Bears were like that; greedy.
Only the big saber-tooth cats tended to pull down their prey from ambush and gorge on it where it fell. And only the smilodon, of the big cats, hunted the grasslands of the big valley alone. If the cat had gone it was sated, and unlikely to return. The teratorn flapped over to the camel carcass and took an experimental peck at the ragged flank.
Mmmmmm. Delicious. And a simple, easy snack compared to her usual diet of small animals and birds. The teratorn, thirty pounds of hard muscle and sinew under her dark gray-black feathers, was an opportunist; usually a predator herself but not above scavenging an easy meal. Nothing like fresh-killed ca...
She cocked her head, listening.
There it was again.
Something odd had been making noises in this little clearing for - although the teratorn had no concept of time - the past several days. Something like nothing she had ever heard before; a hissing, cracking sort of noise. Sometimes the sound had followed a nasty cloud that seemed to rise out of the ground, hot and choking. Sometimes the ground would shake, and a sound very like the thunder that followed the storm clouds that grew over the high hills to the east and west would make the teratorn jump and skrawk. Those things - which had nothing to do with food or fear - were forgotten almost as soon as they ended.
But now the teratorn heard that odd sound again. It seemed louder, closer. The big bird flapped its wings and mantled up as it would against a larger predator, or a rival. But there was nothing there, nothing it could see.
The bird settle back on the camel, still too nervous to feed. Its red eyes kept scanning the edges of the clearing, as if willing whatever was making her uneasy to appear.
Then with a sound like a vast cloth tearing the ground alongside the dead camel ripped open, and a stinking gray cloud rolled up into the hot summer air.
Well, shit, she would have thought if she had had the words, maybe there's a fat rodent over there who's looking to have lunch with me.
Left behind her the fissure grew steadily, both longer and wider. A louder roar, like the sound of a huge boiler chuffing, announced the beginning of the eruption proper. A thick cloud of ash rolled out of the ground, hidden in the cloud glowing fragments of lava that cooled nearly instantly, falling back onto the grass as shattered black cinder.
Within an hour the animal had been reduced to fragments of meat and bone and buried in hot cinder; by nightfall the entire clearing was a smoking, steaming black pile taller then the trees at the edge of the grassland.
In seconds the low-growing sycamores and willows candled, and the lava exploded as it crossed the watercourse, the shattered glass fountaining into crystalline drops that hundreds of thousands of years later the people of an island not yet formed would call "Pele's tears".
The teratorn returned about a week later, hoping to find something delicious in the camel meadow. She drifted on the cold wind off the immense glacier to the east; had she had the ability to form her thoughts into words they would have expressed disgust; what the hell good was that big goddamn pile of dead rock down there now?
Because the meadow had become a mountain; a hot, black cinder cone hidden in smoke by day, coruscated with fire-fountains at night. The teratorn ghosted past overhead, her eyes weeping in the acrid smoke. Sod that for a game of predators, she would have thought (if she could have), dipped a smoke-gray wing and arced gracefully away riding the chill wind back to the mountains.
When the layers of cinder grew thick enough the sides of the little mountain fell away in rough slides of angular fragments ranging from grains of sand to rough oblong "breadcrust bombs" formed from large dollops of magma shot out of the vent. The cinder cone grew steadily for another six months, one of the many smoking mountains in the broad valley floor, until, after nearly two years the crater coughed nothing but ash for a week.
A small cinder shower erupted ten days later but was followed by two weeks of silence, wispy tendrils of steam the only hint that the little mountain had not stopped growing. Another small eruption shook the cone a month later. A slightly larger one that autumn. A desultory shower of stone and ash two years later, staining the winter's white cover a dirty gray.
Three years later the teratorn miscalculated her distance in pursuit of a damnably agile rodent, near that would one day become known as West Linn, and shattered most of her left wing on a cedar limb. She was furious when the wing, which had been working just fine before, refused to move without tearing pain, and was still furious when she died several days later of thirst and system shock.
What a fucking hosejob, she would have thought had she been able to think, as she settled into a motionless heap of dulling feathers.
Sometime in the early morning hours of what would become the month of June a massive wall of water, 400 feet high, erupted out of the narrow gorge of the Columbia River to the east and swirled up over all but the highest part of the crater rim. The waters were a mud-brown roiling sea of icebergs and enormous logs, and they stripped off most of the greenery as well as a portion of the loose cinder slopes. The enormous lake they formed drained over more than a year, and left a sloppy mess of yellow silt over the lower slopes of the volcano.
And every flood mantled the little mountain with the silty loess off the great glacial plain to the east. Each time the intervening years softened and gentled the morass, turned the mud into soil, the soil into grass, trees and shrubs. Animals returned, lived, died, and their offspring lived after them.
If a living human had walked across the valley, had climbed the rubbly flank of the now-seamed and weathered mountain she might have seen other smoke pillars; to the west, to the south, to the southwest. This impossible person might have seen more; broad flows of molten lava erupting to form low "shield" volcanoes that are today Mount Sylvania to the southwest, Larch Mountain to the east, and Mount Scott and Mount Talbert to the southeast.