The Last Redwood Circus

Other submissions by Thomas Henry Pope:
If you want to read their other submissions, please click the links.
Imperfect Burials (Suspense & Thriller, Book Award 2023)
The Trouble with Wisdom (Sci-Fi, Book Award 2023)
The Last Redwood Circus (Drama, Book Award 2023)
Imperfect Burials (Historical Fiction, Book Award 2023)
Book Award Sub-Category
Award Category
Golden Writer
Book Cover Image
Logline or Premise
A young Native American battles an international wine conglomerate intent on clearcutting a stand of old-growth redwoods where Gold Rush settlers massacred his ancestors. When his heroic voice falls short of what many people hope for, a world-class high wire diva steps into the breach.
First 10 Pages


Greenley, California

Ishi Darkhorse switched off his kitchen light and went outside to be with the moon. A few days before full, it had just risen behind the decrepit trailer that came with his job at the newspaper.

Settled on the stoop, he marveled at how the light softened the remains of the burned-out house across the road. How, in the middle view, it cast long shadows of live oak trees onto the dead grass of the valley floor. And beyond, how it cast a golden tinge on the third-growth Douglas fir and redwoods that climbed the coastal hills.

An onshore wind from the Pacific rattled the leaves of the yard’s huge eucalyptus tree. Like everything in the valley, the tree was fighting to stay alive in that fifth year of drought. The rainy season had offered only the ghost of a storm, and that had been back in December. This late in the winter, odds were against any more coming.

A month before, Ishi had stood five miles further west, on the cliffs of Northern California’s rugged coast, hoping to salve the worst of his wounds from his time halfway around the world. Over and over, that moon had shot horizontal bolts of platinum into the curls of waves breaking after traveling all the way from Japan. Now, as he remembered that night, his subconscious added deformed seal pups tumbling out of that surf and flopping helplessly on the sand. In a flash, he saw the story that would keep him up most of the night.

The next morning, Ishi trotted up the redwood slab stairs to the office of the Post-Ethical Times. Though it was early, Efan Brodie’s enormous back greeted him. Brodie’s fingers were flying over his keyboard. His desktop screen was loaded with text. No steam rose from his coffee cup.

Ishi couldn’t figure out what drove his boss to spend most of his waking hours in a room that hadn’t been upgraded since the 1960s. Flat, hollow core doors. Wooden desks. Linoleum. Stacks of old newspapers impersonating indoor ornamental trees.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Darkhorse.” Brodie’s voice was cheery. His typing rolled on.

Four months in, Ishi was getting used to the old man. “I’m an optimist,” Ishi said, settling at his corner desk. “Someday I’ll be like you, successful in not having a life.”

Brodie chortled, still typing. “I have faith in you. Funny, isn’t it? Readers consider exposing the misdeeds of others to be romantic. Living with purpose. If that were so, I’d be living several lives concurrently.” He raised his hands like a concert pianist at the end of a piece, and joined his palms over his heart. “God rest my fractured little soul. I wonder which one of me would die first.” Nothing about Brodie qualified as little—his body, his confidence, his voice. Least of all his vision.

Ishi opened his laptop and turned his chair toward Brodie’s. “You said it would happen someday. I’m here to report.” He waited a beat. “I finally have a great idea.”

Brodie turned, eyebrows raised.

“Not even a year after the nuclear meltdown in Japan, it’s already fallen off the radar. And I figured out why. People aren’t dying, at least not dramatically.”

Brodie jutted his chin. “I grant you, Fukushima is a disaster. But it’s five thousand miles away.” He turned back to his work. “We have to sell papers here.”

“Hold on,” Ishi said. “Tokyo Electric Power is lying. They say everything at the site is under control. But they’re releasing radioactive cooling water into the ocean. And I researched it last night. Only one international outfit still has a dedicated team there—De Volkskrant.”

Brodie harrumphed. “Of course, the Dutch.”

Ishi’s enthusiasm would not be crushed. “They’ve done great work. They’ve reported on internal refugees, public anxiety, radiation, and the thousands of very polite fishermen unable to even give their catch away.”

Brodie stopped typing and looked at the ceiling. “You’re not telling me anything I haven’t read.”

Ishi rapped his index finger on his desk. “Here’s the story. No one’s asking if the ocean can handle the radioactivity, and if it can’t, how much of it will reach California—which is where our readers live . . . and fish.”

Brodie’s look told Ishi what was coming. “If and when scientists tell us radiation is getting close, we’ll nail that story.”

“But no one here is studying it. We need to sound the alarm. Which is exactly what this little paper of yours is famous for.” He glanced at the banner a devotee had sent Brodie years ago: America’s Last Real Newspaper. Brodie had quickly adopted it for the subscript on the paper’s masthead.

Brodie’s tongue swelled his bottom lip. He tapped the “Save” key on his document, turned toward Ishi, and rested his forearms on his thighs. “Not bad. Keep it in a drawer somewhere. For now we’ve got to report in present time. The real threat to us this year is fire.

“I can’t think of another local newspaper that has subscribers from Mississippi to Alaska. What draws them are local stories composed with absolute authenticity. The way we tackle state politics rings with global sensibility. Your talent is going to make you a great fit here. Your pieces on the night raids in Afghanistan were amazing. ‘Native in a Strange Land’ is brilliant. It has insight, emotion, and not a whiff of judgment.”

One-handed, Brodie rooted in his briefcase. He pulled out a letter-sized sheet and laid it on his desk. “Here’s today’s work. My snitch in the county planning office faxed it over last night. She figured I’d want to find out why a shiny-shoed lawyer bought a landlocked piece of dirt up behind state land. My old knees aren’t up to a walk in the woods. I need you to take a look.”

The document was a detail of a US Geological Survey map. Brodie fingered a hand-drawn square in the middle, where topographic lines pinched tight on an already steep slope.

“You’re free to call him, aren’t you?” Ishi asked.

“And he’s free to say nothing. It might help to get your eyes on it first.”

“Who’s the seller?”

“The county’s largest landowner, Hanover Timber Company. Just over an acre. A steep one at that. The sale closed for $475,000. An ungodly price! What it would go for if it were in downtown Sacramento, next to Hanover’s main offices. . . . I’m counting on you.”

Ishi sighed at the wreckage of his plans. “Okay, but for the record, I’m telling you there’s a Japanese invasion on its way.”

Brodie tossed a casual salute. “Duly noted. As for the mission here, I suggest you take your gun.”


Yamagata, Japan

The humble orphan Tadao Kitamura was still adjusting to the opportunity of a lifetime. Through the dedicated grace of his master Sensei Watanabe, Tadao had risen through the ranks of Watanabe and Son Temple Builders to become the designer of the most important new temple to be built in Japan since the war. Emperor Akihito himself had commissioned the project and shortly thereafter had plucked its name from a dream: The Temple of Listening.

Its placement on the main island’s easternmost point was to honor the victims of the 2011 tsunami, whose first waves had barreled forth from a huge undersea earthquake to crash near the city of Miyako.

Tadao’s most difficult challenge was to create a shrine that would pacify the celestial forces that had unleashed the suffering. First, he had to rule out the possibility that crucial mistakes made by past temple builders might have contributed to the tsunami from the Tohōku Quake that leveled the power plant at Fukushima. For this, he pored over fifteenth-century hand-printed manuscripts that measured almost a meter on a side. Laid out on those pages, Tadao found the development of the principles all modern temple builders took as gospel. The well-being of Japan’s future lay in the balance of his reaffirming authentic access to the spiritual realm.

The other design pressure was the emperor’s decree that the buildings stand for a thousand years without the need for repairs. Fortunately, over the centuries, Japanese laborers had planted extraordinary tracts of Hinoki cypress, the supreme native wood for temples, and those plantations had been meticulously maintained. Still, Tadao intuited the need for a revolution in design.

The oldest volumes contained prolific notes and drawings that addressed the art of seducing and pacifying these celestial beings, known as kami. Reviewing them, Tadao began to grasp how the designers’ profound devotion to place, energy, and simplicity imbued their buildings with freshness that allowed humans and kami to commingle in peace.

He worked for weeks on this new paradigm, but every design faced the same problem: Hinoki cypress would not resist wind and moisture for a thousand years. Perplexed, Tadao arranged a meeting with Sensei at the master’s house.

At the appointed hour, he found his old master napping in his bed. Gently, Tadao roused him.

Sensei rubbed his face and sat up, beaming. “Do you remember the day we met?”

“Of course. My life began that day.”

Contentment radiated from Sensei’s face.

“As was usual when adults came to the orphanage looking for children,” Tadao said, “I distracted the boys who were crippled or too old to be selected.”

“Yes,” Sensei said. “I felt your kindness from across the courtyard. And what were you doing?”

“Building kites. But I didn’t have proper pieces of wood, so I carved the little scraps we had to fit together to make bigger ones.”

Sensei laughed, hiding his mouth behind his hand.

“Then you joined us and asked to borrow my knife, which was the only tool I had. You made what I was trying to do look so easy. All the boys wanted one of yours.”

“I made three,” Sensei said. “The last one was best.” He shook his head. “May I tell you a secret? It was you who inspired me to make a kite that way. It would never have occurred to me. I’m a solid traditionalist. You were my teacher at that moment.”

With a soft hand, Sensei eased Tadao’s jaw back into place. “It takes time for a man to find his way in life, Tadao-san.”

Though Sensei’s legs were stiff from lying down, he took Tadao’s arm and led him to the porch. There, he bade Tadao to sit in the chair next to his, usually reserved for the memory of his wife.

Tadao sat cautiously and took in the grounds. After the war, Sensei had resisted the cultural fascination with Western design. Instead, he’d stayed faithful to the ancient style. He’d made every cut with hand tools. Below wide granite stairs, a flagstone walkway meandered through a garden of perennials, ornamental boulders, and trees. Overhead, the house’s thatch roof paid homage to centuries gone by.

Sensei gestured at the work. “I made the mistake of thinking that change was punishment for laziness. I thought if I was disciplined enough and never quit, things would always stay the same.” He burst into laughter.

Tadao wondered what was so funny. His teacher had never admitted making a mistake.

At last, Sensei recovered. “But I’ve changed.” He laughed again.

Lacking confidence to laugh with his teacher, Tadao spluttered.

“You are probably too young to understand,” Sensei said, almost laying his hand on Tadao’s knee. “But it’s funny when you see that your whole life has been based on narrow views. Because of my nature, I chose a career that held onto the past.” He tossed his head toward the building where the Watanabe woodworking crews were at work.

Sensei was talking like an earthquake. Nothing was stable. The immaculate garden could not keep Tadao’s mind in the present.

“Mrs. Watanabe and I had both dreamed we would have two sons.” He squinted, looking at the past. “But after Satoru, no other child came. Finally, Mrs. Watanabe said to me, ‘Go to the British orphanage. It could be smart someday to have a Japanese son who speaks English.’ ” Sensei pointed at Tadao’s breastbone. “There you found me.” He placed his palms together over his heart and bowed.

Tadao worried that the water in his teacher’s eyes might become tears. That would be a tragedy that could never be taken back.

“I have decided to make you the person to lead Watanabe into this new and strange century.”

Tadao finally found his breath. “But Satoru is—”

Sensei held up his hand. “I have already spoken to him. He will be a solid right hand to you.”

“But, Sensei, you know about my—” Tadao raked his hands in front of his body. “My family disease. The radiation. I won’t live long. What will happen to Watanabe then?” He lowered his eyes at Sensei’s intense look.

“Who can tell us when we are going to die?”

Tadao could not answer.

“I had beliefs about my life and the world, Tadao-san. Now I see they were, if not wrong, not correct, either. Don’t make the same mistake. Help the world wake up, and however long you walk this earth, it will be a life well-lived.”

“Do I have permission to say no?”

Sensei laughed again. “We can’t say no to our nature. Now why did you wake me?”


Zimbabwe — Tsongumatta Wild Animal Preserve

At the first hint of daylight, Delicia jumped into her bush clothes and slipped her camera bag over one shoulder. Before leaving her room, she patted her pocket to confirm she had the keys.

Someone listening to her footsteps on the compound’s main house stair would have sensed she’d settled on a midway point between expressing her fury and trying to not wake Joseph and that woman he was with. After a fitful night, the only cure for her anxiety was a destination far from people.

The jeep’s tires rattled over the cattle guard beyond the holding pens, and she headed east across the savannah. She had no question where she would first go to look for them: the watering hole by Tragic Rocks. Over the last twenty months, she had taken at least 200 great photos from a concealed spot there.

At the watering hole, her heart sank. The site was deserted. She combed the ground and concluded they hadn’t been there since the previous morning. She tracked them north, thinking she might find them in the Sammundo Basin. But as the sun broke the horizon, her binoculars revealed only wildebeests and a small herd of impalas.

The elephants had no need for her that morning, she realized. And being alone was already working the magic she needed. With less ambition, she drove toward the big mountain. For reasons even Joseph couldn’t explain, they often ventured there if one of the elephant cows was to give birth.

In this more open location, she parked a mile from where she had seen them some weeks before. At the last minute, she grabbed the 30.06 in case a predator cat showed up. She wasn’t a hunter—far from it—and Robbie had warned her it was too small a gun for a lion. Still, she hoped that if she needed it, it could give her time to get back to the jeep. Her mood that morning didn’t include a death wish—at least for herself. She chose a route concealed in shoulder-high shrubs, pausing often to listen and to check behind her.

She heard them before they came into view. The concern she had upon waking that morning turned to worry. Many were trumpeting in a pitch new to her.

Bending low, she pushed forward. They were standing, bunched, facing a pair of trees across the savannah—their trunks raised, bellowing, feet stamping, bodies rocking, ears spread and waving. The calves were sheltered behind them.

Delicia followed their gaze. Sure enough, a trio of lions, brazen, assessed their options from raised ground a hundred yards away. Watching from on high, vultures circled.

The bastards!

Thinking to scatter the lions, she aimed her rifle over their heads and pulled the trigger.

Inga, the second matriarch, wheeled and made a symbolic charge not toward the lions but toward Delicia. Her movement exposed a downed elephant. Half her head had been hacked off. Her tusks had been taken.

In her horror Delicia scanned the herd through her binoculars, counting. The one not standing—so the one down—was Maya, the one she loved the most, the matriarch of the herd.

(End of Chapter Three)