Ricky was sixty seven years old dyed his hair raven black told people he was fifty four packed his things in a green garbage bag stuck out his thumb and jobbed from northern New Brunswick to the far side of Cape Breton. All summer long back and forth year after year. There was always odd relief when he appeared on the shoulder somewhere between home and Halifax on his knees hunched over fussing tying doing something with his bag or bundle. His face gravel dust tanned creased deeply engraved one finger cut short another damaged but it was his left and he was right handed and one less finger didn’t slow him down. Try and tell the foreman that. It was not easy for a man his age which is why he dyed his hair and kept one hand in his pocket as he explained with the other the depth of his experience versatility desire and need to work. Everyone suffers from something. Catches me with a corner of his eye otherwise stares straight ahead neither shy nor talkative a slight well kept capable sort. There is always work somewhere it all comes back to that. In Halifax he goes from construction site to site the docks and shipyards but most luck these days comes cleaning up around the Irving Big Stops along the way. That barely pays a day at a time though. Sometimes he gets lucky a foreman gives him a break he lasts a bit but maybe he isn’t quite as quick or handy as the young guys when it comes down to it. Three times in three days I’ve seen him in Pictou County on the edge of something. The rotary. Highway. A parking lot. For me he is an omen. To him I am invisible and he would find my omen idea strange and foolish. This is my exit and thats all of his story I know.
I buried a crow in the backyard this morning a single voice on a high branch heralding the rough ceremony to the flock. Always a trace superstitious conscious of all those mysterious connections I hope my disinterest economy of emotion and shallow hole are not mistaken for disrespect.
Neighbours gathered on the road houses in darkness and white silence one knew and was looking for evidence in the shrubs recalling a similar incident years ago shows me the long bar equivalent of a blown fuse on the power pole spots the black body in the tall grass. Earlier a boom disconcerting bang lights and a dozen small electric motors die amid a sudden cacophony of startled crow.
In an hour NS Power has life back to normal printer kicks on desk lamp ceiling lights refrigerator and fans. For an instant I am aware of the connection between my comfort and convenience and the death of another whose wings are folded forever sealed beneath a foot of earth. Monday morning here I come.
Nineteen eighty nine I pulled over and picked him up a few miles out of Thunder Bay on my way home from work. He could have been one of our Finnish neighbours who had arrived decades ago to work in the lumber camps north of Lake Superior and now sat in small tidy kitchens that looked the same as they did forty years earlier drinking coffee speaking Finn. Not that he looked like a lumberjack on the contrary I mean his age clean simple well weathered appearance neatly combed hair one hand on the comb the other following to make sure every lightly oiled strand was in place. He wore a short sleeved polyester shirt with a stripe the type salesmen used to wear on hot summer days faded trousers adidas and carried a small cardboard suitcase. Smart casual well cared for fashion from secondhand bins the most unlikely looking hitchhiker I had ever seen.
He inquired after the local economic situation noting the probability of depression and high unemployment. Pardon? Having approached several homes without a cup of coffee or sandwich to spare the last woman peering anxiously through a window not even opening the door what other explanation could there be.
His journey began in Toronto where he lived on the street for years medicated dependent sick and dying until resigned he gave up on doctors and prescriptions and surprisingly began to feel better. As health returned his view of life and circumstances changed he decided now would be a good time to travel and see Canada. If you lived on the streets you could certainly live on the highway. He hitchhiked by day slept in ditches and under trees by night covering himself with whatever he could find. It was all matter of fact and so far working out.
I dropped him off at the grocery store in Kakabeka and gave him whatever was in my wallet. Unfolding the bills a momentary glow lingering smile he looked me directly in the eyes took my hand and said the oddest thing. God bless you in business.
I have always been grateful to him.
Willow-of-course was a wind watcher which is simply someone who loves and watches the wind. In fact she enjoyed observing any movement not caused by what most consider living things. Her parents were hippies whose family and friends were not. Although they had planned to call her Willow, whenever asked someone else in the room would pipe up with Willow of course. It became a bit of a joke-of-course that inadvertently wound up on her birth certificate. In some countries it is illegal to name your child anything the state would deem weird. Not the case in Canada in 1978.
Willow-of-course was not a flower child mystic poet folk singer or reflexologist. She did love to dance but so do lots of people. She was a barista waitress once transferred calls at a call centre sold ice cream delivered pizzas patient attendant parking lot attendant sold subscriptions on street corners bagged groceries and pumped gas. Basically anything that would get her through on again off again university until she got a nursing degree and went up north to work with the Inuit or moved to Ottawa or maybe Kenora.
When she was sixteen months old her parents were killed in an automobile accident. She was miraculously saved as she and her playpen went sailing from the open truck box where it was not secured in any way and landed in a very shallow pond. There were sirens red and blue flashing lights shouting in the night lily pads bullrush and momentarily silent spring peepers. She was adopted immediately by an immensely kind and loving aunt and uncle who could not have children of their own. Brenda and Troy owned a convenience store service station and diner in Kenora home of Husky the Musky a forty foot muskellunge roadside attraction where Willow-of-course learned her excellent customer service skills. Growing up everyone called her Willow. Of course. When she was fifteen she entered a brief rebellious period discovered she didn’t have much to rebel about found her birth certificate figured a name like Willow-of-course might be just as cool as rebellion and that was that. At eighteen amid tears of pride and joy she got on a Greyhound bus bound for Halifax and who knew how many years of university.
Willow-of-course lived on the third floor of an old home that had been converted into apartments and was rented to students. There was an annual and semi-annual parade of roommates good bad and irrelevant characters she the constant lease holding official tenant. The sometimes risky status assured her the best room in the house which included a balcony and overlooked a corner of the Atlantic Ocean. The balcony was her refuge out of bounds no questions asked keep out off limits no trespassing space the place where she began most days forty five minutes before sunrise. With a cup and small thermos of coffee she would go outside sit in a white plastic lawn chair on a threadbare cushion and watch the most subtle and magnificent light show on earth. She could not feel but see the turn of the planet toward the sun and the multihued brush of light across cloud bellies and an ancient sky born again day after day. One two three the last stars dissolved a breath of breeze on her cheek a strand of hair quiet rustle of green potted plant leaves and last years dry brown and curled stirring into corners. This is where Willow-of-course became a wind watcher began to notice and relish the invisible touch push imminent force movement air current swoosh of her planet imperceptibly spinning through outer space.
On the twenty first day of June summer solstice by chance she was walking on a trail in the early afternoon and a most peculiar breeze caught her attention. Odd was the distinct definition and shape of it. Waist high about three feet wide a foot deep and as steady as any freshwater stream. Young birch poplar ash and maple leaves long needles of new pine and shorter spruce all slightly bent leaned hushed rustled and whispered. She put her hand her face in the flow untied her hair sat down walked in and out and finally settled beside watched and listened to its melody of brush and touch. Willow-of-course would have liked to follow the breeze but not today for it would be without beginning or end and would take a lifetime. She was hungry and already running a little late for work.
Early evening the rain finally stopped an hour or so ago hosts of clouds now rushing across the sky shades of grey blue splashes of torn white light dappled furling unfurling stumbling dissolving wisps. At once the world outside my window is a wash of golden light the green on green forest wall thick lush and luminous.
Times like this you know that you are blessed to be here. Times like this you know that you are blessed to times like this a blue heron you spot the lightning a moment before it strikes dart out of reach hover in your world between surface and bottom current heart beating a mile a minute more than just a little shocked. The tall threat a blur in bullrush and reed now shaken but wiser you swim deeper out of reach. Heron foiled strikes the surface ones twice three times in rapid succession stretches her long neck gives it a shake spreads broad wings wide and ever so slowly lifts out of the shallows off the river follows the clouds.
From a twisted branch Kingfisher watches it all never taking his eyes off of the meal watching watching it swim into ever deeper water away from the shelter of shadow and grass like a bullet drops from the branch head first with a splash sunlit spray deep dive up and out empty beak rattles flaps erratic upriver complaining all the way.
Spotting the flash of heron was once lucky something else before the nightmare splash of Kingfisher who knows what that was. Now you just want the last of the sunlight rushed into darkness.
Osprey sits on the edge of her nest atop a slightly leaning pole tower. She sees the flash escape the old bird who in any case serves well to mark meals for her nestlings. Glancing up she knows her mate is circling and has missed none of this so wise and swift around and around he spirals ever lower. Moving sharp eyes ever so slightly she keeps them on both the fish and the fisher. Fish hawk. Fish eagle. Master she smiles. For his part the trout is simply hovering dazed waiting for darkness knowing the better choice would be to swim straight from the river mouth into the rapids of the feeder creek now. It is already dark there sheltered and so much less threat from the sky world. The sky world. Keen curved talons hard fierce sudden crush fill his life the river gone shocked skyward lifted twisting thrashing swimming no water forever falling away. The osprey screams rolls drops quick his mate charging toward the eagle always the waiting eagle after the catch she is not fast enough and the eagle always the eagle is upon him he rolls again once twice. Shrieks enraged. A nine inch speckle trout is flying free falling falling smacks the surface of the Middle River and sinks to the bottom on his side tail twitched upright for a moment then back on his side in the sand. Two osprey chase the rogue eagle all three toward the last trace of cloud and storm.
I never see all of this at once but it is there in moments spotted captured fragments unfolding always outside my window. When I sit down in golden evening light to write and wonder what chance will appear from nowhere it arrives the shy one wishing to be told. A brief cloud twist twirl of sand where a small protagonist rested for a long moment waiting for life to return one more time. And we are away. Leaving the river behind and following the stream finally into the deep night.
When I reach the pond’s edge the still surface is broken by a frenzy of panicked polliwogs scrambling diving and disappearing. They hide under and in the shadows of lily pads last years leaves rotting brown grey on the bottom in the tangle of roots breaking submerged pots pickerel weed and water plantain. Not one to be seen. I sort of sit crouch on my heels. Wait. Eventually a perfect polliwog shadow drifts between larger shadows cast on the bottom. One then another tail gently waving between folds of sunken foliage. There one floats to the surface returning. Another tail then a head pushes aside the wee leaves of duckweed. I am no threat but I should get back to work.
Simon got up from the stump he was sitting on took a step outside the circle of firelight and found a safe place in the darkness to lean his guitar. The last song had left his friends silent and away all eyes now drawn to the blue yellow white heat light hypnotic dance of embers. He had lifted and carried them slowly and carefully. If asked no one would know when his song began how long it had lasted or even when it had ended. They would recall laughing and singing for hours before but not when they suddenly fell silent his voice rising above theirs quelling gently quieting until all you could hear were his words and the play of his fingers on the six strings of a stained stickered well worn guitar. The ballad was long layered human finely threaded silken light heavily hung familiar foreign and finally something that transcended humanity altogether. There was not one among them who did cry weep share their soul or crawl deep inside as the aria wandered from birth to battlefield suggestion to certainty stillness eruption return. No one knew where Simon came from but that his history was not theirs and the language of his song was old to the world but unknown to them.
Seven friends within the orange yellow glow of a campfire seated on stumps beer cases and coolers camping in a park where camping was prohibited and gates closed at dark. A glowing orb in the shadow of trees. There was also a stranger. He had come just as Simon’s song began to gather and hold. His name was Sam the park bouncer and a job was a job but he listened only a moment before rolling up the window turning off the truck shutting the gate and drifting to the edge of light. Simon met his eyes laughed shook his head side to side stopped the pick and strum slapped and drummed with hands wide open returned romanced the strings one at a time back to the river that wrapped welcomed and carried them on.
The fire is dying, Simon said. Entranced they sat as one unable to distinguish between his voice and the orange yellow flickering fading light. Hours ago he had found the fires pattern movement twists and tempo spark flame and ember. Told its tale. His song was not the folklore of a single distant land or culture but the whisper and crackle of campfires burning across the world. Stars on the face of the planet humans gathered round in song and silence.
They sat through the night and transition from darkness to purple deep blue lightening shimmering ever so slowly shifting brightening until on the tips of the tallest trees they saw the first touch of sunlight breathing in a brand new day.