by Eric Miller
Would you like to go to Salt Spring Island? Of course you would. You’ve never been. We have to pack with care. Don’t forget the coffee. Don’t forget the wine. Check the skybox! It keeps getting loose. How do the bolts unfasten so fast? Everyday stress, I guess. Tell me about it! October moulders flaming, yellow leaves, red leaves, a mock-conflagration so sopping it ravishes without imparting heat. The neighbour’s hortensias, can you believe? They try every colour. You would hardly think they all could grow on the same bush. Sea anemones, amethystine geodes imitated in silk, a purple that deepens, dyed flagrant by the tarrying of attention—foreplay of a kind, a courtship long antecessory to our eros. We peer stunned as pollinators in spring, what fructifications of gripping rot! Stop staring. Let the uncouth mushrooms, rotten when they ripen, tumesce to hail those clusters and pledge them fleshy service amid the twinkling of wet ambulating spiders, the spittled glissade of gradual slugs. True it’s tough to ignore this prodigy, just in order to praise that one. Don’t you feel obliged? Kaleidoscopes can detain us even after we have stopped cranking patterns. Decomposition is composition too.
Step over here with your crate and it is as warm as August, step over there with your bag it is as gelid as January. A confused crocus is bobbing up, too simple for this world. Poor untimely vegetable marmot! Even above town a band of Canada geese bashes chorally overhead. What long necks, what blunt daft bodies, what overlap of air churned by wings, of air alembicated into black-beaked shouts! No frost yet has stiffened the grass to a moussed quiff, or stippled the tarpaper shingles. Therefore, we still resolve to swim when we get to the lake. Who cares how cold it is? I do, a little. Swimsuits, swimsuits. We remember the panoply of paraphernalia belonging to the dog, her shining dishes, her musty pad; we forget the dog herself. Is she in the kennel in the back of the car? No, she is cowering under the kitchen table. What a face, her nose as dark and eloquent as her eyes! There, now she’s with us.
What semaphores her ears are! Hard to suspend our interpretation, an ear is not a receptacle but a transmitter as soft as sphagnum: twin mottled mimes flip and flap, make obeisance, rebel, acclaim: these canine petals wag, retract and crinkle, sensitive and critical: easy to overlook, though, as we have demonstrated all too clearly. They cannot always catch our eye. How many gestures we ourselves make escape notice, the universe is gestural, perhaps being noticed is not the point. Know how to carry the dog? One hand in the soft pit of a foreleg, the other hand folding and bundling the hind-legs together. How strange, hind-legs of a hare, front paws of a stout cat! Everything they tell you about dogs or about anything else dissolves, evanesces in the presence of the entity. We hold it, without comprehending it. A tail, a tail, how pleasant it would be to have a tail. There is a syntactic quality to a tail. Had I never before seen a dog, I might think her tail the means of propulsion. You swing it to propel yourself forward, a wand with the properties of a paddle, a manner of motive snake.
Make sure (when you come) you bring one of those mornings in mid-October when every half hour packs a different kind of weather. Clouds are more various than earthly things, are they parody or homage? Don’t even try to keep up. Spray sifts down from strata so high they seem irrelevant to the aspersion. We might stand beside a waterfall. Then a chiselling wind picks at roofs, tarps, marquees and the basketwork of trees, wresting from their implication sprays of leaves turning colour, and turning over, and cast down now like bouquets at a monument. Did you ever break a kaleidoscope open when you were a kid? I examined the shards, alone they meant nothing, united they combined—recombined—and their dragging rasp in the course of their twisted successive originality (a little like a receding wave’s as it rolls the shingle) was not the least ingredient of the pleasure they gave. Pelts a pebbly rain now, an aspirant hailstorm, un-deflected by any grace or mitigation of air, pinging perpendicularly, striking evenly and heavily. It polishes our one pumpkin that sits like a buoy off a dock, but it is in the midst of an unkempt lawn. The grass twitches like a mass of dogs’ ears. Feel the stem of that pumpkin! It is as bristly as devil’s-club.
The traffic! Where are all these people going? No sooner do I set out anywhere than a jam congests! So enjoy now, for we are Epicurean, the jostling jockeying likeness of a flash mob on tires, summoned to variegate our journey, fit to accompany heaven’s still flashier flood! The sky’s Piranesi balconies, its shafts and cells of weather splatter and reconfigure. Imaginary prisons. But these brute trucks! One says Fine-Line Road Marking, another says Garda Business Security Solutions. How the Stasi would covet them, they meet the standard of the sinister for sure. I will not forget them in my song! Even ambitious little Vancouver Island does its best to over-populate, in one plethoric way or another. But historian, don’t you recall that old ruse, when you have too few soldiers you parade them fro and to over the battlements and the foe thinks, oh my how many, how the garrison throngs, our spirits sink, we strike our tents, we lower our pikes as dogs lower their tails curling them under.
Close as it is, however, it’s hard to see our curious convoy now. The rain, like an incompetent optometrist slotting in worse blurs, renders eyesight a risible prototype. The kaleidoscope is well and truly broken! It won’t turn. It won’t focus. Only a matter of a couple of dozen of kilometres from Victoria to the ferry terminal, but the fluctuation of the skies renders it a series of incommensurate episodes. Where is the continuity? Did I miss something? We only need to survive, we don’t need to have an understanding of what is going on. As the car approaches the gate of the ferry lot at Swartz Bay, it is buffeted and it thrums. The world is tossed like paint or slops at the windows. A baying mob might assail our vehicle. Only a field of pumpkins, when we pass it, sits still. The heavy rocklike fruits, despite their festive reddish yellow, might be the grave markers of past clement days. Lest we forget.
We acquire our tickets at the booth, I cannot see the vendor though her voice is pleasant, we are directed to our lane. We came hours too early! All that haste for nothing! The sky decides to clean up, leaving us space in which to regret and to celebrate our precocious arrival. An Aeolian custodial broom passes, with an invisible-whiskered, Saanich-peninsula-wide swish. Gulls process through the high clean hall, as though demonstrating (with subdued shining gestures of the deadpan wing) the striking lack of detail. Nothing to see here! The authorities have done their renovations. And the universe has gone minimalist. When we step out, we are obliged to wear a mask. Covid-19, like a religion, imposes a dress code. I cannot find my tasteful navy-blue mask, so I substitute a grotesque bright white nozzle, intended to be worn when a person confronts noxious fumes. I impersonate a pig therefore. Gulls are now flung overhead as though they lacked will, as though they were part of a game in which their animation were irrelevant. Hurry up! Someone needs to have gulls around, get the gulls please, the scene we are shooting is by the seaside. Don’t ask the birds, just throw them over here. You are always so slow, what is wrong with you anyway? But the wind has picked up, operatic clouds are romping into view. Overtaken by celestial shadow, a cormorant has melted to a buoy like a dirty inordinate candle. Guano and bird seem of one substance.
I am obliged to tell the truth, in the public washroom a creepy gentleman stands close behind me where I water a urinal, hawks and spits a number of times, thumps a plosive fist on the wet counter, sneezes and grumbles and lingers. I am careful not to meet his gaze, not even in a mirror. It takes all kinds! The relief of evading and outlasting this mucous scarecrow is almost worth making his merely acoustical acquaintance! Rilke once reported that a violin’s music pursued him from address to address, wherever he twisted in his lyrical peregrinations; I am afraid that, more basely, a sternutatory monster of phlegm, strangely needy as it seems, awaits me always, when I flit from lavatory to lavatory, only seeking for myself modest relief and transient asylum. I say “needy” for there seems to hover in the tainted air a desire on the stranger’s part for some plaudits, perhaps a medal or an honorarium to mark the performance. Give the guy a raise! But I am no qualified connoisseur.
In the refectory, we get coffees, a way of marking our holiday, the machine dispensing the drink amuses us, it burps fluids white and black. It reminds us of a thousand road-trips: and the imbibition of the beloved potion, of the amiable berry-essence, allows us to cultivate our cerebral yard, the predictable elation dilates to adapt to impinging circumstances. I am happy. Are you? I brought something to read in the car, excuse me, since we are early I will read it a while. The cestus of Venus (I am just now informed) is today universally bestowed.
We drive aboard, it is a small ferry, it has no roof, the sailor in a vest as brilliant as a deified pumpkin entices us to jerk a centimetre and a centimetre forward, we move like a horse in a stall, we are advised not to leave our vehicles. Covid-19 confines all of us. Within less than half an hour, Fulford Harbour, our first destination, is plain to see. Yet within that abbreviated interval, the scene before us—we look out over the flattish, the snub cetacean bow of the vessel—mutates recklessly. Three elements make fickle stripes of the world. Each hypnotizes distinctly. Our trance has layers.
Bottom-most stretches or tosses water. It culminates here and there in whitecaps. The pathos as the swell attempts, always unsuccessfully, to foster longer these toppling flecks of pallor, which it would usher flourishing across the salty plain! They aggregate in certain places: from other places, they are absent. Patterns! To perceive a pattern is hardly to grasp its rationale. Whitecaps seem sociable, so much I can venture confidently: like the idea of orcas or dolphins before their animation and, I dolefully conclude, in the wake, too, of that passing episode of liveliness, of wilful innervation. The elements ruminate even in the absence of animals about possible animals, animals decorous to them. I am a beast myself, and my partisanship perceives only the zoomorphic.
The water, though profound, offers gracious hues, light purple, light green. Kelp, as heavy as wrought iron yet buoyant, chooses an immutable tint that flatters the sea, whatever shade local waves may adopt. How fresh the tide seems! To bathe an eye in such water is to shake out an eidetic sea-duck’s plumage: a sight that would kill us in short order, it is that cold, if we dipped our whole body, not just our vision, in. I blink complacently.
So the ocean sparkles, for the sun is out. It changes as you look at it, there is no stopping the ceaseless re-pigmenting, clarity, opacity, levity, gravity and other Latinate abstractions reach and heave, monstrous and sprightly. The surface sharpens triangles and warps them, lifts fields of basaltic brief altars (the god is unknown). Crystals achieve refinement at the jeweller’s then melt like sherbert. Embossments are aroused, and are discouraged. Don’t do that here! What we stroke absently, excitedly is the distinction between ocean and the air. Intimate monumentality!
Consider now the islands. They comprise the middle stratum. They feature rough bluffs of rock half-bright, half-dark, moisture and moss and lichen deck, dapple their rondure. They feature as their frame stiff cedar groves, fir bunches. The headlands weigh as heavily on our regard as a dog’s head on a thigh. They push down on the sea, but the sea does not respond. Their weight goes straight down to the roots of the earth. It displaces nothing. Archimedes is out of a job. There is so much place that it can go no other place. Broken reflections of these headlands scatter and ride on the sea. The wild mirror, the ocean, is attracted to abstraction but still it favours representational art. Mountains of improbable height, given the narrowness of the islands (six hundred metres!), rear up and, crested like Hector or woodpeckers, give us the delusive sense that such rampant definitiveness as their profiles impose will endure in our memory. Instead of my recollections, here is a rocky prominence. I am gone, I am only what I see. Every ridgeline tree-tip etches itself inextinguishably on the mind. We need neither microscope nor telescope now. Our naked eye suffices, retentive without distress. We register detail, so our conviction is, without the lie of magnification—as though we could magnify without magnifying, and thus evade the rhetorical and pragmatic, the political and philosophical contaminant of overstatement, of understatement. Hyperbole and litotes and all that vain cohort may retire now. So much for rhetoric!
The sky? I have not forgotten it. Where is it? High overhead, but also as kind as kisses in a perpetual feat of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Let me tell you, the clouds are the true agents of transformation. For one thing, they affect lighting (their virtuosity in every genre of geometry aside). At first they sustain a great affinity with the islands, doubling them in the empyrean, floating robust and hard: old endurance, old triumph, idiosyncrasy, sky-marks and landmarks. We could not tell them in fact from rock and mountain but for the draggling tassel ends, long, thin yet blurred, that trail beneath these vaporous archipelagos. The cloud-bottoms glow pale blue and their sides radiate white, which ripens to a soft yellow. Then, a declaration, they darken to purple and the islands beyond our bow go dark as lanterns extinguished and the sea becomes a cracking mass of plaza flagstones crumpled up and cast asunder, a last judgment scene of funerary monuments splitting and colliding and falling apart, the whitecaps are bones tossed into a final inspecting dimness. A sky-quake! All the sparkling goes, we have given offence, I would like to appease this rage, the effervescence that united far and near has died in a final distant popping of bubbles. The whitecaps, however, deriving power from some source not solar, have come on like rushing lamps, dazzling while every detail else goes dull now more than angry. I could not say a witty remark to save my life. What were we talking about, anyway?
The dock! We made it after all. Fulford Harbour feels narrow, whether it is or not. Look at those two sailors cinching the bow to the terminal. They work parallel cables. They push levers and try to even up the landing-craft-like steel gate before, from the shore, a sort of drawbridge can be lowered. These sailors quarrel over it playfully, the handles they manipulate appear ridiculously large, the cables tighten symmetrically, things are so contrived that you cannot make a big mistake even if you may postpone (from incompetence or the weather) the proper alignment of the vessel for passengers’ disembarkation. The parking lot, how small! The rising road unwinds with an instant inland air, but insular hills narrow the valleys, each flat-bottomed like rowboats. The breeze smells sweet, it savours of cedar. Wigeons whistling like finches more than ducks cluster near a mudflat, in the assembly of these small waterfowl some behave as genuinely wild as if they had flown out of a previous century or millennium. Indigenous people have lived here at least five thousand years. The boy with lightning eyes had to pitch camp high on a mountainside, away from the others. Shyness in birds or acquaintances is a lovely thing. I do not mean modesty, I mean a particular relation to the world.
To market, to market in my porcine nozzle, my ugly mask. Despite the size of the island, the traffic in the market’s vicinity befits a wretchedly busy city. People drive poorly, parking spots jut at odd angles. The booths, because of the pandemic and the hour, are not numerous. We only want leafy vegetables. It takes so long to purchase this edible foliage we speculate it must be grown first before it can be bought, somewhere it grows in a plot behind the booth. With all these masks around us, we might be queueing in a bombed-out ward, haggling for nutriment, what nutriment the siege has left us. That is because the sky is so tattered, it malingers, it catastrophizes and it misanthropizes. Then, ah, it clears. You might even think a swim is reasonable, after all. Birds levitate. The clouds decide to wear cerulean sashes on their breasts, in solidarity with the sky their Gustavian tenderness ornaments.
Take a sharp left at the top of a hill. Here are the rental cottages. Pass the burnt foundations of a lodge, no one knows why it went up in flames thirteen years ago, only the gate survives. Brassy gas jets wrought into the shape of stylized flames top scarlet-tiled welcome posts. Never ignited, the torches are perches in an overgrown zone frequented, I can hear, by Golden-crowned Sparrows always practising (an art they never quite master) to be Golden-crowned Sparrows. A blessing on the genus Zonotrichia, they fortify my will to live by their careless attendance on me. How sweet, meanwhile, the failure of pedagogy is! These musicians live in incompletion, they breed in a precocity un-dispelled by the onset of seriousness, they die innocent. A Golden-crowned Sparrow never has an experience, and the last thing I want to give it is an experience. Live and let sing! We drive down the lane to our cottage beside the little lake. We have been assigned no. 37 by management. Management is always a numerologist. Night already mulls falling, the benignant blue-and-white clouds are thinning. Presently we are visited by a member of the staff.
She brings red potholders. How thoughtful! We detain her briefly in speech. Tall, very slender, masked of course, a brunette, she leans a hip against a car. With a hand on the other hip, she lets one bent arm describe the arc of a Diana’s bow, a little flexed. Her other hand, supporting part of her weight, reposes on the hood of the car. She crosses and re-crosses her ankles, every time I direct a glance at her she does this. She is all dressed in black. I see in her a resort worker’s life, loneliness, chagrin, ecstasy, reproach, self-reproach, ravening and austerity in alternation; the pantheon, pathology and zoo of fellow staffers; but most of all (given her age), anxiety about tomorrow. She might be twenty. I had a job at a place a little like this one, once upon a time. Annoyance, sadness, delight, a field guide to gods and idiots, anxiety about tomorrow. I know the thinnest body may be grave, abandoned, gravid, dead-weighted densely with misgiving, with foreboding, yet pregnant with splendor, with auroral intimation.
Let’s take the dog for a walk. She is a touch hip-shot, we do drag her a little, she needs the exercise, we keep her young because we tow her and tug her. A lakeside path, high grasses. The dog sticks before rank bouquets shifting her muzzle like a dowser’s stick, blowing her cheeks out, wringing her nostrils like a fly preening its wings, an appreciator of what we may well scorn and we have to overlook, such is our organic deficiency. She pees with a sacramental air, anointing, consecrating. The lake amounts to a pond, only nine hectares in size. In just over a year—a month more than a year—all its waters will be renewed by the surge of nearby springs’ insistence. That is forgiveness of a kind: a Heraclitus who hangs back for slowpokes, and indulges nostalgists, and gives the resentful time to relent. Alders dangle cones, their leaves always strike me as army surplus.
I regret some nomenclature. I am sorry to say that herb over there, so matted, so flossy, suffers from the name “pussy-toes.” “Horsetails” is equally foolish, I know horses, no healthy horse exhibits a tail so spindly as this primordial plant’s jointed branches. Blackberry tangles harbour Song Sparrows and kinglets, their voices shine out like glimpses—but glimpses of what? Perhaps, today, of mauve asters set in the brown simmer of crickets, for the sight of asters and the sound of that stridulation lie close together as the rays of asters do. When you see a bird, its head cocks quick, to and fro. The motion should be hectic: instead, it is dear, and it tranquillizes without anaesthetizing. As the dog uses her hovering muzzle selflessly (collating perfumes of which we have no inkling), so the bird must synthesize monocular cubism, a clearer Vermeer, an Arcadian, fey and dizzy Watteau. But I am looking for Boucher, myself.
Instead a man my height, a dead ringer for a thief in a novel I have been writing, adopting a singsong voice, not replying to my hailing him (“Hi!”), stands dumbly a long time, looks down at our dog and says, “Going for a little stroll, are we?” His delivery, like his phrasing (it occurs to me), resembles that of an actor in a provincial repertory company. Decadent memory of a British accent, from after Britain has vanished like Atlantis! We ought to have shortcake and strawberries and cream! He should gesture with a supple walking stick. True he’s unseasonable. It takes all kinds! Give the guy a raise.
Oh, to eat. Oh, to drink. An open-plan kitchen! I hurl food into myself as though into a fire. And you? Help yourself. Try this. Later (but you won’t be there) someone talking in sleep will actually thank me. Better than night terrors, I’d say!
What a steep incline! We are climbing by night up a night-black slope toward the main road. We cannot see our ascending way, but the dog’s resistance increases proportionally as we climb. She is an instrument as good as a protractor for measuring angles. The closer the degree creeps to ninety the heavier she manages to become. Incredible! We agree. She has a white snout and a white scruff and she glows like a grounded Barn Owl. We see Mars and Venus in the same sky. For the first time in a year or more, we perceive the good smudge, the Milky Way. A handle on the rim of the solar system and of the galaxy feels within the gaze’s gathering while we mount the hillside on which the cottages, too many of them, really (relative to the size of the lake and the fragility of the watershed), tumble like black blocks. The pandemic means few are in residence here. Mars faintly pinkens—hardly red. Blunt Venus presides steady, unlike the stars. They tip out tiny wobbling rubies, jaspers, lapis lazulis: an inconsolable weeper’s gemmy coruscation, tears on cheeks in the dark, the near-dark, a woe we cannot solace, we cannot even wipe that face which, like a nocturnal sound, veers (it would seem) close and sways (it would seem) far off. The ellipses the planets pursue impress themselves on us: not like the orrery with its brass crank or the full-scale galactic spiral arm that throws a glowing stole over ebony shoulders. No. Tonight it is a matter of forsaken sentinels, footsore, squinting for eternity, securing the perimeter. They tread their groove but no longer recall which side to face. Who goes there? Their cause, their army, their people have vanished, but they remain and they call: Who goes there? Who?
Good morning! A balcony, coffee, feet up, October goosebumps, a cedar wagging its aromatic fins, lake-water laying out one ruffled frock after another or smoothing a bedsheet, it is day. Our amphitheatric ears scoop up a basso-profundo rooster (perhaps as big as a bull), a raven, Canada geese, a Pileated Woodpecker and a Great Blue Heron. All of these outcries have a primal ring. The geese, only a pair of them, fly low and circle the lake. They might be winding up its secret shoreline in a rite of circumvolation. What pleases is the graininess of their voices, how it breaks as well as bugles, how it is at once mellow and residually amateurish—like the song of a Golden-crowned Sparrow. There is a deepness to all these utterances whose analogue in our life is our more resonant voice that sounds from our throats after physical trial, physical release. More coffee?
Some abundance reassures. Earth has not died yet, my friend. And no, old copia is not all gone from small Salt Spring Island. Hear that? A passerine impressionist musical uproar, a fricative twittering (as blurred, after its vocal fashion, as last night’s galaxy), strives to match, twitch for twitch, every shake of a golden leaf on that tall, tremulous cottonwood over there. House Sparrows in town could only envy this cascading plantation and transplantation of bright chirpiness.
Let’s go closer. Now we discern small birds dashing to and fro, like fruit capable of swapping places. They land in the top of a tree and forage downward, fall out the bottom of the crown and fly to the heights of the next tree. This cloud of sound is more melodious as well as more intense than House Sparrows can manage. Pine Siskins! Look. The heart of the flock is just up the lake, toward where the foundations of a bankrupt effort at resort expansion are canopied by the forgiveness of birches and the absolution of alders. I count sixty siskins before I lose count.
When I was a child in Toronto, a single Pine Siskin betokened the remote, the irruptive, the unlikely—that enchanted thing, the boreal. Here in British Columbia, these finches, striped with warm brown, touched with yellow mid-tail and mid-wing, can abound. Sweet excessiveness, warm swarm. The twangling joy of companionship, of multitudinous companionship, resolves into individual birds as antic as parrots. Siskins dangle by a single foot from aspen twigs, tangle in the air their inextricable snarl only for a laugh because every time the mess resolves, another slip-knot. Happiness! No need to pursue it. Here it is. Every ripple on the lake carries music, music softly rubs the undersides of clouds.
In the midst of the tumult a pair of Cassin’s Vireos exchanges laconic salutes, as though by this parsimony to make the chiming of the siskins a minor feature of a private grammar. If a noisy collective would jam all tranquillity and exclude contemplation, measured utterance can make its way regardless. Between gnomic vireos no siskins have said a word, not one. Now, within the compass of our binoculars’ round gaze, a grey-brown rabbit, a Golden-crowned Sparrow and a junco browse. They seem to subsist for the moment on one substance and yet to express it with an absurd and desirable diversity. I remember asking, “How can grass become a horse?” and there was no one to answer me. The herbaceous rabbit palpitates, at once soft and nervous; the sparrow, instinct with musing song (as though it is always happening on its own pathos), looks calm and large for all its smallness, in the richness of its tranquillity; the junco flirts its tail always. Its blanched outer tail-feathers, flicked like a Restoration coquette’s in time with her riposte, match its faint clicking. And that clicking could be mistaken for the sound of waves at the side of a canoe’s hull as you climb into it from a dock.
Excuse me, I want to be alone a moment. From the balcony, you can watch me lift the green canoe (the only canoe) from the rack and carry it (wobbling, it is true) above my head. With relief, with a wash of sweat into my armpits and across my forehead, I set the canoe into the lake. The hollow thumps accompanying my embarkation gratify me with a fullness in entire contradiction of their testimony, which is vacuity. Now I begin to paddle, noticing a little too late I am sitting in the bow but using it as the stern. No matter. How strange that we can make holes in the water and the water heals at once. I launch into my nine hectares of adventure as though onto the bosom of Lake Superior. Synecdoche is adequate, we can live or die on the smallest ration of experience.
What pleasure in registering the least suspiration of wind! Now there is no opposition; the canoe moves forward without hesitancy. The merest thrust of the paddle sends the simple vessel surging, a gallant swag of waters cresting understatedly wherever I point the canoe. The sensation resembles stirring with a wooden spoon a vast beverage, sliding into welcome sex, drawing on clothing soft and clean, opening a drape or parting curly leafage on a prospect as agreeable as a face that smiles back. The near surface of water is as fascinating as a well-wrought plot. If we speak of kaleidoscopes here is one without chromatic vulgarity. The scales of fish are suggested, the rinds of circumambient trees, the protuberances of incumbent cumulus, the looming within a mirror from within which not your reflection, but a separable numen might bulge to fulfil a wish.
Oh but now the wind, little in truth, still makes me work hard, regret the canoe, the paddle, the distance from the dock (laughably short). My shoulder-ball begins to complain. The wind stacks petty waves against me, envious antagonist in a game. A kind of thrusting testudo of watery shields presses, Lilliputian, against the clover-coloured hull. These minute Roman soldiers, snug beneath their lids, thrust the boat backward and sideways. Have you ever carried too much baggage in a public place? The loudspeaker announces your departure, but you aren’t there to depart! You ain’t goin’ nowhere, buddy! We got you good! (Every upright surface takes on the character of a sail that ought to be shortened.) Are you thick? You’re a winner or a loser, and boy I’ve never seen such a loser in my life! You should have given up, oh, seventeen years ago, aye ’tis seventeen years if it were a day. Remember? Depends what you mean by that inquiry, sir.
What the hell are we on about? Permit me to lend some illumination. The backwoodsmen, I have heard tell, call the condition being “Bushed.” That epithet in Canada does not just denote “fatigued.” It can mean by long sojourn in wilderness bewildered. Do you really have to tow behind your canoe the triumphator of Iraq? No. No thanks! Dude, take it easy. Weed is legal now. The legionaries drift away like fragrant smoke, they defect, they detumesce. Reverie and amnesia debauch them. They mislay their angry implements—pilum, scutum—no longer understanding the use. Their languor blooms in watery rosettes, in asphodels: they cultivate oblivion. I paddle across Lake Elysium. Dream a little dream of me. If you say so, milady. Conscript fathers, where, where is the virtue of our forebears?
A breeze more arch than fierce pushes me into reeds where a redwing unseasonably crows, more richly than any rooster. The black and red bird swells like a bud or a breeze, bursts with a melodious croak. Such a savoury sound, somehow it does for the ear what pinot noir (the first sip) performs for tongue and gullet. What an expansion, what a mellowness, what a sharpness, what an assertion, what a congruity with what I only half imagined I wanted! A wild teal bursts from a tiny cove. While I relish my blackbird, it is true that, as I look back at the cottage development, I can only see it as a depredation and an eyesore. Human beings!
To visit a cemetery is to realize it does not matter much who gets commemorated. Uproar over memorials is sometimes misguided. An equestrian statue chiefly appeals by reason of the horse. A Houyhnhnm ironically submits to be mounted by a Yahoo. No tomb is representative, and all of them are representative. In the nineteenth century, Hawaiians moved to Salt Spring Island. Cowrie shells, I think they are, drape their memorials. Every seashell is already a monument. Loveable pleonasm.
Listen! The voices of titmice are as commonly distributed as graves. I like the spillway whereby the self-interest of other organisms becomes our delight. Engrossed by their own diplomacy, titmice tickle me, sober me, sugar me. It is the quality of the sound and the association of the birds as they flare round a listener in a given place. A human crowd is hard to sentimentalize. For example: on an occasion when some danger beset me in another country, a hypocrite kept braying to me about the virtues of “community” and “conversation.” The coloratura they imparted to their voice while they pronounced these nouns! Such cynicism almost amounts to idealism: extremes meet. My experiences, quite a few of them, incline me to doubt community and conversation—at least, when they are advanced (with a special, excited vehemence) as virtues and excuses. Not what you have found to be the case? I can imagine! But, dear reader, give me leave to insist, it remains for me just that: an effort of imagination.
I was saying, the community of titmice and its conversation amuse me. This is without sentimentality in the sense that titmice do not care about me, or the awful conversation and dismal community proposed to me by my own conspecifics at one time or another. You can tell what a person’s career on earth has been like by the degree to which they posit a faith in those phantoms, community and conversation. Too often they rhythmically fall, sledge hammers to pound down opposition. “Community” and “conversation” can signify: we ostracize you and you should shut up.
Time to swim! What prefatory contractions of parts the idea alone accelerates, aggravates! Let’s walk down to the dock with our huge towels. We undrape, the October sun nuzzles our nakedness, we leap. Even as I hop outward and plunge, I rotate toward the wooden ladder by which I can lurch out. How is it for you? You made quite a splash. You say the first two jumps were uncomfortable? Then it became tolerable? I concur.
I challenge my death with every chill immersion. I toss a gauntlet down to my own raddled system. Is it my time? Apparently not. Do you un-gum your eyelids every morning in wonderment that you are cast up on the coast of day again, escaped an annihilating shipwreck? Let me say I have a lively sense I am alive.
We jump and we jump, developing indifference to the cold. Did I hear you allege, “That is because you are growing numb”? Feet first into winter! All the time we are not supposed to swim, when the sun is remote and the day is short, we defy the hiemal veto, attended by carbonation, each sequinned spherule pops from the lips of lost August.
Let us stand dripping on the warm wood, round our feet the grain darkens. Cold we accrued from the lake begins to make our muscles twitch and ripple: the horripilating, purple afterlife that our audacity takes. The sun may need more fuel and we may have no means of stoking it, but it has passed enough outer-spatial warmth to our pelts that we can begin to thaw ourselves, our blood confident now of its caloricity advances into capillary hinterlands to bring succour where bunched blueness spasms. Willow leaves are spear-points littered on the inshore. We got off the battlefield fine. The seasons keep warring without us, the secret is there are at last no casualties.
You are our guest, of course you have heard us fight. Are you any less peevish? I don’t believe it. A fly on the wall would not think this ruckus even worth reporting. Cabin to cabin, it’s all the same to that beady, sluggish eavesdropper. We argue most of all when we go for a walk. Sometimes it is a refined dispute, but you have witnessed the persistence of childhood’s old intractable irritation, unpurged no matter one’s age.
The dialogue goes:
—I want to go farther.
—I want to go back.
The problem with such disagreements is, neither party has a proper argument to make when the disputes transpire on vacation and everything is elective.
For example, here we all are, the whole lot of us at the beginning of an old road, almost all grown over. Have I told you management went bankrupt? That’s why there are lamp posts standing in the middle of nowhere amid burgeoning trees.
Let’s suppose I say to my companions, I would like to proceed. After all, I am lured by finches. Sparrows’ voices glitter, strung (if you will) with acoustical, with varicoloured dew, such filamentous music.
No (you say in your most petulant tone). I want to go back!
You’re welcome! You too can lodge in your belly the antique crankiness of holidays. Go then! Do what you want! I don’t care!
And so some advance, and some retreat, glares confront each other, and everyone takes a boring souvenir with them: strife’s chemical memento congesting the chest. Some paces of solitary promenade dissolve it and distribute it as a kind of energy along the way. Don’t ever try to convince me you’re any better. You missed hearing the Varied Thrush, and you missed seeing the Marsh Hawk. I don’t say that out of spite. Not me!
The name the Salish people gave to Burgoyne Bay is Xwaaqw’um, Place of Mergansers. Even with binoculars, however, I can’t spy mergansers—or Mr. Burgoyne, whoever he was. Gravel-dust billows under our wheels as white as daisies, old pilings of a wharf stand on the left each plinthing a cormorant, Mount Maxwell rises to its feet on the right. Years ago we hiked that eminence, which we avoid today; the dog was still hale enough to go along with us. That day a Ruffed Grouse burst out from under us, an avian puffball, a satiny fat touch-me-not. No such giddiness today, the trail keeps to the shore, but arbutus trees glow—they make me think of the flavour of cinnamon. A sunny afternoon so untroubled a flicker calling from kilometres away across water sounds close enough to clasp. We climb down rock like rock in Nova Scotia or on Georgian Bay. Metamorphic. Though inland the Garry Oaks still hold tight all their leathery leaves, this seaside specimen is wholly stripped of attachments. I sketch the soft-contoured yet riven rock, sketch the interference patterns made by the brine snoring against stone, I sketch the naked oak and almost offer it a coat it looks so comfortless even in benign sun, poor thing.
We have to leave! We are catching a late ferry. Night has already thickened. In the ferry parking lot, behold Fine-Line Road Marking and Garda Business Security Solutions, our old companions. Fancy seeing you again! We dine in a café close by. The few houses near the shoreline gradually fill, staggered on sloping eclipse, with a cool yet inviting light. Each house in the stark descending forest appears vacant: a little shed erected solely to shelter, like a saint in a vineyard shrine, a bright light.
The hostess puts us in a small separate room with a harbour view and a view of a collapsed patio parasol. On the walls hang paintings. Now if the artist should happen to read these words (I do not know who that person is), please understand the meaning of my critique. There is always room for improvement. Most of what I make I destroy. Revision is the real vision. Back to the drawing board is a cheery slogan, no dissuasion at all. Courage!
But in our judgement, one picture is good, the rest are poor. On the right, for example, is a figure only one of my dining companions could identify as a mermaid on a dock. This mythological being’s body is hard to parse from the dock proper—or the wharf, as they call it in these saline regions. She faces an oval fish able to hover and breathe in the air, and it appears the mermaid and this aerial prodigy intend a kiss. Another picture, to our left, features a line of sheep, white bodies and black heads, on a hill brow beneath an open-grown symmetrical tree: it could be Ruckle Beach, there is a farm there and there are sheep there too. Alas, whoever depicted these sheep consulted only an idea of the animal: had not inspected them with any kind of empirical—that is to say, respectful—will. A general notion of a sheep, a beast that could not graze, that corresponds only to a system that at no point touches on life, that woolly enigma.
Yet the same artist did a reasonable job of painting a birch-like tree beside an arm of the sea. The disposition of this person is for dabbing. I can feel the way in which the laden brush thrusts against the canvas, a mild bumping or nosing action. Because the foliage of the tree, leaves roughly oval by reason of the dabbing, dapples off into similar blots representing the sky, something of the impression of a shaking tree, a tree not in convulsions but lightly shaken, is competently communicated. Bravo! Bravissimo!
Our server wears a black mask; her blue eyes pop unusually round by contrast; a brunette, short curls. That’s not your dish! I ordered the halibut and chips. Didn’t you order the burger? At that moment of confusion, behind our backs a male voice suddenly yells, “He noticed it.” Surprisingly often I hear a voice yell, “He noticed it” as I go through the world. Does a dumb catchphrase sometimes seem to shadow you? Make friends with it! Let me supply testimony that someone noticed something: namely, that someone else keeps crying, “He noticed it.” I noticed that, I did. Give the guy a raise!
Meanwhile, as she sets down a pretty glass of merlot, the server warns me, “Watch out for the fruit flies. They only showed up last night.” But I am the friend of Drosophila; the fruit flies at our house have bodies the same red as the wine I drink, and I am happy to share my revelry with these agile, gentle creatures. They bow to one another, like Regency gentry.
When I was a child on March Break we sometimes drove from Niagara south and east to Cape Hatteras. We took night walks upon the broad beaches. We would begin toward a distant lighthouse and, unlike during daylight, we reached it with creamy, smooth suddenness, without fatigue. We might have rolled rather than stepped along. The car ferry analogously sweeps forward, like a hovercraft. The dim shapes of islands round us might be the bow wave of this improbably swift, yet utterly tranquil vessel.
Every trip we take together concludes in rather the same way. You get to witness it! On the highway to Victoria, a vehicle pushes us too hard from behind. A pellet of aggression, of unlawful speed. Something of the stunt driver about this entirely vapid, yet genuinely perilous presence. Where there is no allowance for passing, it passes us, briefly endangering our party. We could have died! We didn’t die, unless this is the afterlife!
Some distance down the highway—see?—on the road shoulder, this inevitable miscreant is inevitably halted by the inevitable police car. Flashing blue lights, and all that. Signatories to an old treaty! Why this should be so predictable (this skit) is anyone’s guess! Someone has to speed! Someone has to apprehend the speeder! They might almost be one and the same, dividing like the essence of a tedious god who assumes the form of a very bad boy and a very good boy, in other words (if you frown) one stupid child, indubitably male. Manichees on migration. The police, they play a part in the rite; the absurd car, driven like a rocket, plays a part in the rite. Allegorically the whole show means, “Going too fast! Got caught again!” “Again” is the word! Whoever that velocitous stranger is, it is most assuredly not us. Have you ever got a speeding ticket? No, me neither! Not once in my life. But then, cars have never really interested me much. Sure I appreciate all the pleasures, there are plenty. But really! Transports over transport, I like to walk. Besides, rationally speaking, there is no advantage to excessive speed on the road, and in this regard we are pretty pragmatic travellers, aren’t we?
I had a friend and he made me laugh. To drive a car is supposed to be very manly! All you do is sit and press down on a prudent pedal. You might be operating a sewing machine in the parlour. In fact, this speculative friend of mine had a theory: “You know what has domesticated human beings? Cars have! Those ads where you’re flying on an empty road, what a joke. You’re constantly braking. Even a Very Bad Boy becomes in short order a Very Good Boy, against his own inclination. The machine teaches you to sit still. A sententious little schoolhouse, a cramped church-pew—a car. The police arrest their semblables, and so everybody is kept busy.” You know what I’m going to say, don’t you? Give the guys a raise!
The photograph of a cold lake is by a member of the expedition.