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The Message


G. M. Potter was born in Santa Monica, California. He graduated  in 1994 with an undergraduate degree in English. Until finally committing to life as a writer, he has worked in several occupations: Chef, Financial Advisor, Commercial Fisherman, Carpenter, and Soldier with the US Army Special Forces in 1985.

After the financial collapse in 2008, and living on the coast of California, he moved to a remote region in southwest Montana in 2012. Finding the time and the appropriate place, he committed to finishing a small collection of short stories. In August 2015, Clowns and Buffoons: Short Stories was published and made available on He is currently writing his second collection of short stories, The Birdkeepers, to be released in 2016.

Author Page (Amazon): 




I have this image in my head of Camille. From so far away, I see her in my mind in much the same way as I have seen her in the light of day, in the early morning of the kitchen or just before the light is turned off and we fall to sleep. She is crouching down near a path, under broad tropical leaves and opening a bag of birdseed. I imagine she pours the birdseed into small bowls for the parrots to feed from on bamboo perches. I imagine a raucous crying of the birds and an undulating wave of vibrant foliage in the distant expanse of landscaped jungle. I can also imagine what she must be screaming into the empty house when she comes home.


She just arrived at work, this time arriving by herself, and it is early in the morning. Some low lying and tumbled clouds in the east are preventing any significant sunrise. For now, a grayness illuminates The Aviary enough so that the fine gravel path can be seen leading off between thick foliage and disappearing around a wide curve. The dome is overhead and trees grow without restriction. Rain falls not from passing clouds but from the acrylic panels high above where water condenses and falls of its own weight. By mid-day, The Harland Aviary is a jungle in every way possible.


Yet even the water, I suspect, secretly wants to escape.

She must have told them by now. She must have told them about the decision I made for myself, and therefore, for both of us. She must have told them she would be leaving in several weeks to join me over a six hundred miles away. She could have told them the day I told her but I imagine it would have been several weeks before she could have brought herself to do it.


“My husband”, she finally says as much to convince herself, “is doing something about it. I’m very proud of him and I will be leaving to be with him before he ships out. He’ll be a soldier.”


I imagine she says all of this.


She stands on the other side of the barrier explaining all of this to someone I know but cannot see. Thick and wide strips of heavy plastic, much like a barrier to a cold room, separate the humidity and warmth of The Aviary’s tropics from the outer lobby, rehabilitation rooms, laboratories, and administrative offices. She tells them about my decision. She gives her notice and Dr. Orlander stares back numbly. After nine years, she announces to the surprise of everyone that she will be leaving soon.


“Many things have changed,” she says to him, “and you know this. This country has changed forever. I’m going to be with my husband where I belong.” I imagine she makes plans to pack up our belongings, what to keep and what to put in storage, and how she is uprooting what remains of our life together and transplant it to a place she has never seen before.


She pushes through the hanging strips of plastic and begins walking down the wide steps into The Aviary. Those steps are my favorite spot in the entire complex and I often stood a long time there while I waited to take her home. From there you can see over much of the plant life, see the enormous trees both near and far away, and the small waterfall. Vapor hangs in the air, condensed and ghost-like, caught in tree branches, or lying in a ravine, making it all too real for the visitor. The scene must convince them that they have suddenly traveled thousands of miles merely by paying the price of admission. Two parrots, a pair of Scarlet Macaw, soar in tandem through the shallow make-believe valley. The background of manufactured rock cliffs and the short waterfall frame the birds in flight.

She loves the parrots best of all.


I see her beginning her routine. She cuts up chunks of mango and banana onto a metal sheet pan and places it next to the seed.  In answer to the growing sunlight, a slow and staccato squawking begins. The cries of several species echo and dissolve through the plant life and off the clear acrylic panels. The jungle distorts their hiding places. The hundred and fifty or so tropical birds under the dome come slowly to life. She leaves the feeding area and randomly checks the climbing vines, the leaves of a Cocobolo and a Canafistula, and the soil beneath all of them for adequate moisture. A display plaque is tilted and she rights it and pushes it further into the ground to keep it straight.


Countless times I have been allowed to enter The Aviary to wait for her and then to take her home. Often, she is nowhere in sight but then miraculously she appears only yards away, having made her way back along a hidden pathway. Usually in khaki shorts and a dark green polo shirt, brass name tag, and walkie-talkie on her hip, I understand now how she dressed to be a part of the jungle display yet accommodating and a welcome source of authority.

“I still need to find your replacement,” Doctor Orlander says nearly every day. Having given her notice, he has no other choice but to accept her decision and mine by default.




The Army bunks are measured and moved so as to be equally distant from each other throughout the barracks. We tighten the sheets and blankets around each bunk’s mattress and make them identical to each other. I shine my boots, fold my uniforms, and one day I’m sure I’ll be ordered to scrub out the showers, the toilets, and the sinks. Our platoon fails the inspection every morning and I grow to expect it no matter how hard we scrub, fold, and shine. We are being groomed, yet the logic of my Drill Sergeant escapes me.

My left arm extends outward and my fingertips touch the right shoulder of the man to my left. Instructions are called out so everyone can hear. The Sergeant shouts, “glance quickly to the left and right without moving your head. Align yourself equally from the man in front, to the rear, and to each side.” A patterned grid of olive-drab men, hair shorn, eyes darting everywhere, is created by the imperious command of our Sergeant Kimmel. A shout of “Attention” booms out across the assembled group of men. Heels click together and boots stomp the ground in unison. Over the first few days it becomes a reflex action before any resistance can be mustered.




My fist pounded the mattress as we watched our world die. Skyscrapers collapsed. Angry and bewildered men and women stumbled, ash caked, and clutched each other. Faces presuming leadership and broadcasting a vision spoke to us pointedly. Yet no one asked why? We were drilled by the television every day for months, and then years, that we must answer the violence and the televised tragedy that surprised us that morning. My fist pounded the mattress, Camille was startled, as I too was caught up in the fervor. I’m going to do something about this, I said openly months later, as the call to action was drilled into all of us as the message and the answer to a barbaric act when heroes died and were created, and my fist pounded the mattress saying the thousand men and women I had never met nor known would not die in vain.


They attacked our way of life and we will not give in, we were told. The aggression must be answered by this great nation, we were told. I knew what being a hero meant all of a sudden because of what was broadcast in front of me. All of us were shown what heroes did, what they looked like, and how they are remembered. They would be remembered forever, we were told. To Camille, I said I had to do something. I suddenly felt I should be a hero too, to her, to everyone. Years later, I wonder if this is what angered us the most - having our complacency brushed aside - but no one else would ever ask this while the message and the answer drowned out every other spoken word. Falling asleep under an Army blanket in a barracks of sixty-two other men, all under Army blankets, all sleeping in the same direction, eventually all dreaming the same things, I had given up my freedoms, my free will, and had done so willingly to be a part of a group that would be remembered as the answer. But now I can’t take them back as I press my hands against the pavement and push my body upwards over and over again.




I see one lone parrot, red with yellow near its beak and blue streaks in its wings, land on a gray-white girder. His head is only inches from the thick acrylic panels that shield him and collect moisture that falls as an incessant and dribbling rain on the manicured jungle below. One drop falls from where he is perched and falls for a long time, dizzying in its acceleration, and the dark green pattern below rushes up to meet it. The drop of water falls unnoticed on Camille’s boot. The Parrot screeches once, tilting its head upwards at the framed view of passing weather and finally, out of an overwhelming frustration, falls into the vastness, opening its wings and obliging the visitors to feel inspired by his soaring grace. 


Guiding leaves back and away from her face she moves through the deeper parts of The Aviary’s jungle, off the designated gravel path, to find the pockets under the dome left to the birds alone. She never told me she has a quiet place in The Aviary where she can be alone in a manicured jungle so vast as to feel she is alone in the entire world, a New World, and can go anywhere in that world to be herself. Does she think of me, her husband, when she’s found those moments in her Garden of Eden? I believe she’s grown angry at me. I am a disappointment, a crushing heartache, and the source of a weeping at the sink in our kitchen. All of her days turn to fits and episodes of anger when she is not in The Aviary. There’s no one at home for her to shout at, to vent her terror upon because I’m not in our kitchen, our bathroom, or our bed.




I stand in a line of other men, dressed the same, standing the same, hair cut the same, moving and shuffling forward into the chow hall to eat the same things, sit the same way, and discard the food trays in the same place and then to muster into formation outside, all the same. We are men equidistant apart yet waiting collectively for orders and instructions.


I imagined many things when I raised my hand in a room with twenty-four others, repeated the oath, and stood without comprehending what it could and would mean. I imagined a noble fight and I imagined moments, scenes playing out, that would ultimately make me heroic. I didn’t imagine that each of the other twenty-four men and women believed identical versions of their own making. In the absence of the promise of heroism, each of us would have refused to raise our hand and refuse to take another step forward. I never considered the possibility that no one would remember me if I weren’t heroic. Death would be a tragedy leaving me mediocre and ignored if I died without recognition. Death would easily, in truth, strike me dumb to the point of being immoral. I never considered an alternative to the promise of being heroic as likely as it would turn out to be.




A raucous chattering grows and fills the enormous space beneath the dome. The Aviary’s large flock of Crimson-Footed Parakeets - a brighter, more luminous shade of green than the trees and foliage around them - are busy telling each other what they told each other the day before, what is not new but is more important than ever. The Message for them is more pragmatic. They live as a group and flourish as a group. Breed and feed as a group. Yet, when I have tried to look at one specific bird through binoculars, I always seemed to find the one that was just being itself, preening, chirping, or eating, and not seemingly a part of a group at all. I have tried to watch another one, and then another, over and over. Every one of them couldn’t possibly be independent of the flock and yet a part of the whole, connected to each other in the most fundamental and intuitive ways out of need for safety or from some collected need to consume the abundance around them.


Camille would always tell me how much of a shock it was to her when she found herself next to the acrylic panels of the dome, how shocking it was that the lifeless girders and warping see-through panels appeared only feet away from the burgeoning growth of the jungle. Because she could choose, for nearly nine years, she purposefully kept her back to the panels no matter what she was doing and, therefore, never believed The Aviary was not a limitless expanse as far as she cared to imagine.


I see her, in my mind, carrying a newly rehabilitated Scarlet Macaw down the steps and to the central feeding area. Acclimating a bird to a natural environment takes weeks and this lone bird has been deemed ready to be returned to the jungle. I can see the flock, far off yet all aware of the lone bird waiting. Without preamble, the flock erupts and collectively sweeps into a turn toward the feeding area. Fourteen pairs of wings pound the air. Each red and blue plumaged bird tilts back to slow down and light upon a branch high above. After a few minutes of seemingly random squawking and flapping, somehow and in their own inscrutable way, the new bird is accepted and invited to join. It springs from the bamboo feeder and with one intensive lurch the flock rises again, absorbing the new member and returning to the jungle with the same drama by which it arrived.


I can’t see the lone bird anymore. It becomes one more in a group of over a dozen. Lost yet found.

For all the joy and release I believe the bird must be feeling, the opposite must be true for Camille. The closer she will be to me physically, I believe the farther away she will remain as my wife. The distance between us now is in equal measure to the distance she will be forced to accept from her beloved sanctuary.

The spell is broken. I feel it, her absence confirms it, and my heroic death, incalculably worthwhile to me, would solidify our separation, irreparably. I see this in her from nearly a thousand miles away. The separation is too much for her faith, too corrosive to her loyalty, and she goes deeper into The Aviary’s lush and promising foliage to hide and be surrounded by the chatting, snapping, and glorious color of the flock.




I can’t tell her when the enthusiasm began. I am trying to make the best of my decision and a tempting acceptance comes over me at the point when everything I am doing all day is about the platoon and everyone in it. By the afternoon, our boots aren’t shinnied as we would like, our uniforms are not pressed any longer, but we march together. Four squads of men marching in unison. We hold our battle rifles diagonally across our bodies and each step is echoed by each man there. I learned that I am a fair shot and our Sergeant Kimmel is beginning to treat us like soldiers. I’m beginning to understand why the parrots perch so closely to one another.


I find a renewed eagerness to get into the fight I saw so often on the television. We are spurned on at every turn to remember the fight is out there and waiting for us. For all of the sixty-three men in 2nd Platoon - Marshall, Bergstrom, Jensen, Rivera-Ramos, Mattingly, Zaun, and fifty-six others - we hear the call “Quick Step, March” from Sergeant Kimmel and our pace slows, our breathing syncs, and the barracks turns into view.

Our home.


I still smell the cordite from the ammunition we fired. It’s in my clothes. It’s on my fingers. It’s an acrid smell breathed in from a foxhole. The expanse of the firing range laid out in front of me and blistered back a heat. The pounding of the weapon’s recoil into my shoulder creates a welcome stiffness at the end of the day. I understand how our collective duty is imprinted on us. This is my weapon and this why I joined.




Doctor Orlander habitually rolls his eyes in exasperation every time it rains outside of the dome. A distant humming begins. The acrylic panels begin vibrating when the raindrops pour down. Often it will begin at the far end of The Aviary and then sweep under the length of the dome as the storm moves overhead. The humming gathers and rolls towards the entrance, the lobby, and the administrative offices. Camille charges around the reception desk and crashes through the thick, wide strips of plastic to be in The Aviary again and witness the artificial thunder, taking any opportunity now to go back in there if for only a few moments.


I always believed Doctor Orlander rolled his eyes up into his head out of exasperation, and slammed his palm on the desktop, as if an imagined curtain had been pulled back to reveal the props, the lighting, and the stage hands of an imagined theater production. For the visitors, the fictive dream is dispelled when a storm rolls overhead. For the Scarlet Macaws in the branches of the Guanacaste tree, all look to each other when the rain outside starts but no drops fall on their feathers. They pick obsessively at themselves with their fierce black beaks and believe water is striking them, washing them, yet dry they remain. How confusing it is for them to hear rain but not feel it.


She will be leaving soon. Two weeks from now her time will be up. She will hand in her walkie-talkie, return her name tag and green polo shirt, and sign the termination of employment agreement. That day will be a transformation, I imagine, of a kind that separates her from the flock of Scarlet Macaws, Crimson-Footed Parakeets, and White Ibis that live near the pond and stream beds. For the last two weeks I see her pleading with Doctor Orlander to let her work in there.




I’m glad I’m not chosen to be a part of a small Honor Guard. I remain with the platoon and will remain with them for two more weeks until we graduate. I read a letter from Camille and she tells me how hard it is for her to be leaving The Aviary. I understand now more than I ever imagined. I want to write back to tell her how it will go when I get through Infantry School and finally get shipped out. I want to tell her what I imagine it will be like there, armed and a part of a Combat Battalion and how it will be to be giving it back with all the power and force of our military.


Each of us, the sixty-three men of 2nd Platoon, stand in Army dress uniforms on the Parade grounds. There are three other platoons and all of us stand at attention waiting to begin the graduation ceremony. A small military band passes in front of us and 1st Platoon is the first to turn, as a cohesive group, to follow. We are called to pivot right, then “forward, March” behind 1st Platoon. We are flawless. As we pass by the reviewing stands I try to spot Camille. Is she finally proud of me? Does she finally understand why I did this and why I would be doing more? I salute our Commanding General in unison and by command with the sixty-two others.




“Everything’s packed. All my things are either in suitcases or boxes. I’ll pack the car tonight,” she says and is unable to look Doctor Orlander in the eye.




The General begins speaking of our sacrifice and duty, of joining our comrades overseas to eliminate the vileness of the threat and I can see The Aviary again. I see a lone Scarlet Macaw, the same one who perched on the grayish-white girder and watched the passing weather outside before falling and soaring back into the jungle. The bird is circling above the jungle canopy a hundred feet over the tallest trees. A new storm is roiling outside of the dome and the variety of jungle birds below grow frantic. Sheets of rain crash into the panels and a bolt of lightning appears in the east and then a moment of silence before the muffled boom reverberates the dome.


A shudder goes through the steel structure and an acrylic panel, highest in the dome at its apex, is jarred loose and falls through the air. A column of rain pours in, whipping wind batters the warm, moist air inside the dome. The lone Scarlet Macaw flies higher and finds its familiar perch on the girder beneath the new opening. The bird cringes against the harsh wind and chilly rain coming in and lurches suddenly from the girder, opening its wings and floating, patiently circling underneath the open square.




Applause erupts from the grandstand and several shouts of “Attention” cascade over the soldiers and each of the four platoons snaps up straight and still. I still don’t see where Camille is sitting. I haven’t seen her but I imagine she is there. We are dismissed from graduation and I look for her in the audience. I go back to the barracks finally to collect my gear and stand in formation to receive orders from Sergeant Kimmel for my next duty assignment. I go to look for our car that must be in the parking lot. Somewhere during the long drive from The Aviary I imagine she changes her mind, turns off the highway, and sits in the car until she can decide to turn back or go on.




The lone Scarlet Macaw circles again under the catastrophic gap in the dome. It dips and swoops upwards and bats its wings vigorously as it soars higher. The bird folds back its wings and rockets out of the dome through the fortuitous gap left by the missing panel. Later, Doctor Orlander will only suspect what happened to the bird when the panel is replaced and inventory is recorded at the end of the month.


And the Answer

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