A warm mass of air, moist from its passage over the Pacific made its way east above the islands dotting the rim of the continent, over the low coastal mountains, on over the wide carpets of forest. Encountering the updrafts common among the
snow capped mountains inland it began to rise and mingle with the larger mass of cool air above it. From amid the sweeping, enfolding dance of warm and cool vapors, a rush of wind emerged and swept down at great speed toward the rough peaks and planes of
the mountains below. Down and down to tussle the dry decrepit form of a small conifer that had succumbed to the cold of a harsh winter a decade or so before. Out near the tip of one of the pine’s few branches swung a twig that had snapped under the force of a slide of snow during the last spring thaw. A lone pinecone perched upon the frail bark of the dangling twig, caught the wind and twisted the twig around until the last dry fiber gave way and the cone was severed from the tree. It fell and tumbled on the rush of air, bouncing down the stone incline, scattering its few, scant seeds, one of which, along with a small crust of lichen, nestled snug in a crevice in the rock.
The force of the wind was mainly spent once it had leveled out and swept across
the face of the land, and so was easily, if only momentarily, confounded by the rush of air sucking along behind a brown Ford Taurus. The car was heading westward along a thin, two-lane road that wound toward the city of Prince Rupert on the coast.
Paul Wilson had reached the town limits of Terrace but had not yet achieved cruising speed when he saw a hitchhiker up ahead. Though not reckless by nature, Wilson had already acted on impulse by putting his work aside for a few days to venture some four hundred kilometers out to the Queen Charlotte Islands. At best, he felt the jaunt was a calculated risk, at worst, little more than a whim. The jagged assemblage of mountain peaks out across the Skeena River seemed even more beautiful than he remembered. The lush, green swaths of forest, the depth of the blue sky looked somehow even more profound. All morning he had been enjoying a giddy sense of freedom. As he approached the hitchhiker, he eased his foot off of the accelerator.
“I'll just have a closer look at the fellow. Be nice to talk awhile. Why didn't I ever thumb a ride anywhere?” Paul wondered as he glanced again up at the sky.
These thoughts were the gauzy filaments of a net he had held too long. So long that his arms had all but forgotten the motion of casting, his hands held and were aware of holding, but his fingers had all but forgotten the import of what lay in them. The reflective questioning that once had brought the world to him, so often now bound him. Wilson longed to speak again as he once had spoken with his wife.
'See there, Cassiopeia has swung close to the zenith. To the east, nestled between Perseus and Taurus shine the Pleiades, so beautiful a cluster the Greeks faced their temples toward them. From these sights early man could tell that soon winter would come.'
For Paul Wilson, winter truly had come; his wife was no longer there to listen, and his words had all but frozen tight.
Paul stretched his finger, signaled and guiding his car onto the gravel just past the hiker on the road. The man looked to be in his late twenties, with ruffled, unkempt hair, a short beard, and a slightly crooked, but gracious smile. As he gathered up his things and lopped toward the car, Wilson watched in the rear view mirror, impressed by how easily the hiker carried his bulky belongings.
"This is it - the last ride," Andrew Bradley beamed.
Several weeks earlier, as he first picked up the pack on the day he had set out on his own, Andrew had exclaimed, "I can't carry this thing."
"Believe me, in a week, you'll be running that thing up the road," his friend had said.
Andrew had set out together from Southern Ontario with a couple of friends in a white VW Rabbit, all intending to start new lives on the coast. After several initial collapses, the car had blown a head gasket while crossing Saskatchewan and, as it obviously was not up to tackling the mountains, had been pronounced dead in Ituna. Andrew had reluctantly accepted it was time they split up anyway. Over the past few years, they had encouraged Andrew to join them on backwoods camping trips, until he felt a sibling intimacy he had never known in his own family. At the nightly campfires, the couple snuggled and talked of setting up in a new house, he felt too much in their way. That hurt more than saying goodbye.
The next morning Andrew stuffed his pack full of clothes and camping essentials and caught a bus south to Regina. There, he sealed the rest of his possessions in a cardboard box and shipped it Bus Parcel Express ahead to the coast. He rode local transit, among the crush of commuters heading home, out toward Highway 1.
Andrew had stood in the wind of the passing cars as afternoon darkened into dusk. He was considering his chances of finding an open U-Haul in the rental lot across the highway when a tractor-trailer hit its air brakes and pulled onto the shoulder. The driver said he would roll straight through to Calgary, but around three a.m. he turned in at a truck stop and parked the rig among a jagged line of trailers. "I'm gonna grab a short cat nap," he said, and cradled his head on the steering wheel.
Andrew sank back in the soft seat, lay his head against the window and tried to sleep as well. The driver had left the radio on and a country music station spun cheating songs around Andrew’s heart. As he looked out into the vast prairie night, the lyrics cut too close for comfort. Every fifth vehicle rolling east out on the highway seemed to be a Greyhound bus with a destination tag blazing, in big white letters - TORONTO. He was trying hard to forget the place, but when Tammy Wynette started wailing "D-I-V-O-R-C-E", it felt all too much. Andrew scanned the rows of glowing lights and switches on the dark console of the cab, but was unable to locate the radio.
Eventually the driver woke, and true to his word, dropped Andrew off in Calgary at sun-up. Andrew ate a full plate breakfast with lots of coffee then bused into the city for supplies. By noon he was back on the road. His first ride showed him the mountains, the second took him to Banff.
In a light rain, Andrew hiked through town and up a trail along the Bow River to finally pitch camp beneath Mount Rundle. After scrambling together a small pile of damp kindling, Andrew cursed his inability to start a fire. Bitterly, feeling he had given in, he cooked dinner on his camping stove, then ate quickly and without pleasure.
'I can't do this. I'm never gonna make it,' Andrew cursed himself.
That he had covered a thousand miles in a stretch then hauled his guitar and pack another dozen kilometers, all on almost no sleep in forty-eight hours counted for nothing. As he lay in his sleeping bag watching darkness drip down from the mountain, it was not just starting fires, or hiking up the Rockies that loomed insurmountable.
"I'm heading for the ferry in Prince Rupert," Andrew said through the open door, "but any distance is a help."
"It would seem we share a similar destination. I'll open up the trunk."
"I prefer the back seat, if it's alright by you?"
“I appreciate it," Andrew said, quickly scanning the car as he opened the rear door and laid his pack inside.
'All the better, actually,' Paul thought to himself. The trunk already held his own suitcase and equipment and it would not do to have anything crammed up against his telescope. Despite this, as he watched the hitchhiker load in his belongings, Wilson felt encroached upon, as by conscious habit he never carried goods up front in the car. Only then did Paul reflect on the extent to which this bubble of spontaneity was uncharacteristic. He felt the subversive probing of a pang of doubt. At first sight of the hitchhiker he had welcomed the opportunity to converse, now he questioned the urge.
'Certainly I can discuss my interests without erupting like some self-indulgent adolescent,' he thought, then winced at the echo of his wife's' accusation.
"Page two in the Hitchhikers' Guide - avoid locks if you don't have the key," Andrew said.
As Andrew had made his way up the Rockies to Jasper and on west, each ride brought a new variation on the theme of interaction. Andrew might carry the majority of either talking or listening, but either way, it rarely took long for the roles to be established. Andrew and Paul had just come to that often-awkward moment when the initial, cursory greetings, observations of the weather and current events were exhausted and it would become clear if actual conversation would occur.
Andrew had become fairly accurate in predicting which drivers’ were talkers and which wanted distraction, but this Paul was proving to be elusive. He would open Andrew a space, then interrupt with an observation before Andrew had fully responded. Yet Paul seemed neither arrogant nor rude. Usually something like that would not bother Andrew. He would just drift along the drivers' current, whatever kept the driver happy and driving. But Andrew was tired, not so much physically, though that was true as well. Andrew was tired of trying, of opening doors toward intimacy no one cared to enter.
"It'll all look different when you're out on the road." his friend had said as they loaded the car in Toronto. "When you're standing on the coast, looking out at the ocean, you'll feel like a whole new man."
But as the mountains thinned out and the last hundred kilometers of continent were rapidly disappearing, Andrew felt himself bottoming out.
"So, where are you from?" Paul asked.
'What does it matter where you're from if there's no reason to go back,' Andrew thought.
"Well, this morning I started out of Kitwanga. I made it there from McBride yesterday."
"That's a good haul."
"Yeah. I caught one last ride at dusk in Smithers. I'd spent a few days in McBride with a friend I met up at Mount Robson."
"I'd planned on a few days at Berg Lake, but I ended up staying a week. A ranger told
me it's rare to get a clear view of the peak, but it was visible the whole time I was there. One night I woke before sunrise and saw the full moon shining over it. Then the morning clouded over. Seemed like it was time to move on."
"That must have been a spectacular moon view. Are you a star watcher?"
Something in Paul's tone caught Andrew's attention. Any other day Andrew would have taken his cue and got the driver talking, but he did not feel like it at all. For weeks he’d worked to engage the drivers, just as he had spent his life trying to animate his family, and most recently, his ex-wife.
"I made a point of looking when I was up in the mountains, but I'm not into constellations, trying to see them the way some guy centuries ago did. I just look out and feel the sense of the ages. Eons and eons that would be as it is even if no one had ever thought of the word time."
"So you are then. I do admire the constellations, that mapping out of imagination, but they can be confining."
'Here it comes,' Andrew thought, “the discourse of the driver.”
"There was a period of my life when I studied charts and followed the seasonal progressions of the stars, but it may have distanced me from the event that sparked my interest. It wasn't an occasion of any kind. I was simply out on a clear night, walking. I stopped and stood a long while, as I often would. But on this night the stars, and not only the stars, but all the expanse of space between them felt completely familiar and comfortable, yet the comfort was of an infinite depth. I felt aware of an unimaginable complexity, and was at home among it. Describing the moment still fails me."
"Well, maybe not."
"Once I noticed the feeling, it was gone from all but memory. But excuse me, I’ve been told not to bore anyone else with this story.”
"Not at all. I envy you the experience," Andrew said. "You've never gotten there again?"
"Not yet. Maybe I’ve been trying too hard. I have to look without looking."
The car was buffeted by the wind of a passing tractor-trailer. Paul switched on the wipers to clear the windshield of mist.
"Will you be camping out tonight?"
"Yeah. I imagine there'll be somewhere close to town."
"I don't mean you ill, but I'm hoping for a downpour tonight."
Andrew laughed out loud, then asked "And why is that?"
"Tomorrow night offers a, a potential stargazers' delight. Few in the world will have an opportunity to enjoy it. Seven of the nine planets in our solar system
will come into alignment. The event will be visible from only three spots on earth. At Macchiu Picu. From Vancouver Island. And from the Queen Charlotte Islands."
"That's where I'm headed."
"And that is why I'm hoping for rain tonight. And clear skies tomorrow."
Paul and Andrew rode along without speaking as they approached the city of Prince Rupert. Andrew kept his gaze out the rain-pebbled window, up toward the mountains, so much softer looking than the rugged, massive peaks of the Rockies. Each mountain, shrouded in mist, seemed to rise up on its own.
Wilson pulled his car over out front the Greyhound depot, and turned in his seat to watch as Andrew unloaded his gear.
"Thanks a million," Andrew said.
"Clear skies," Paul said, then checked his rearview, and drove off toward the Days Inn Motel.
He found it without any difficulty, parked, took his suitcase from the trunk, checked in and collected his key. When he stepped into the room and saw the twin beds, the urge to call his wife seized him, but that was beyond consideration. Paul stood there a moment, still holding his case then crossed the room. He lay the suitcase on one bed, then sat down on the bed closest to the window.
Andrew lugged his pack and guitar into the Greyhound office and felt the warmth of comfort rush through him as he saw his somewhat crumpled box sitting on a metal shelving unit behind the counter. But the sensation soon fell away; getting a sense of belonging, even home, over a worn cardboard box he had nowhere to take made Andrew feel forlorn.
Andrew dug his baggage stub out from the bottom of a pocket of his pack, then apologized to the attendant for being well over two weeks late.
"Aw, that's no matter at all. We're not exactly full to burstin'."
"Well, in that case, would it be a problem to leave it here awhile longer? I thought I'd spend some time over on the Charlottes before taking the ferry south."
"Oh, I think we can manage that."
Andrew picked up his pack and started toward the door, then stopped and set the pack down again. He stood his guitar case up on its end, resting his hands on top of it, considering. Back at Athabasca Falls, south of Jasper on highway 93, in the big, log-cabin lodge of that nights' campground, he had played well, showing off his rapid-fire, Bo Diddley rhythms on a version of 'Who Do You Love?" The woman whose song he had followed lay her guitar on her lap, placed her hands together, and with flashing eyes and a mischievous smile, nodded to him and quietly intoned "Master." They each played a few more songs, talked awhile, then Andrew excused himself and went off to his tent.
The next day the woman had approached Andrew as he sat watching the turquoise water cascade down the falls. She said she had planned to move on that day, but wondered if maybe she should stay a bit longer.
Andrew looked up at her attractive, welcoming face but despite feeling the desire, he could not open to her at all.
"I think you should follow your first instinct," Andrew said, sinking even further as her watched her smile fade.
Since then he had hardly touched the guitar.
Andrew picked up the case, carried it over to a row of lockers, stuffed it away, and then dropped the key deep in his pack.
Outside, a couple of guys were loading knapsacks into the back of a pick-up truck. Andrew jogged over and hailed the driver.
"Are you heading to the campground?"
"Climb aboard," the driver said.
Andrew made his camp off to the side of the open, grass field, soaked his tired muscles in a long hot shower, then ambled back to the tent. Sitting cross-legged under the low, nylon ceiling, he shook his fingers in his damp hair while considering what manner of dinner to splurge on. He lay back a second, picturing a Greek half-chicken dinner with lots of rice and potatoes. There was a damp, glistening, tall-necked bottle of beer beside the plate. A second later, Andrew was asleep.
'"Their intimacy was as the melting snow trickling down unseen among the bark of an aged oak." That was the first blatant statement. Journal number five. August '68. Even his handwriting was different. His fucking hand had changed. Go back. Journal five - June. Even journal four. Trace it back, even then the change had begun. He knew then as I know now. I know. He meant me to know. No. No. He never suspected. Dad would've killed him. He would've - but I will. Fucker won't know 'til I tell him, two seconds before his head explodes.'
Jim Dodds walked quickly, not looking much beyond the asphalt before his feet. He had walked this path enough nights. Dodds thrust his hands deep into his pockets, pulled them out, gestured to the darkness. He bit his cigarette as he took a deep, last drag, then flicked it ahead of him, watching the glowing heater spin, then arc down and splash in a shower of sparks. Only then did he see the figure ahead. Dodds sniffed the air.
He slowed and walked toward the man, stealthily, but in such a way that no one watching could tell he was stalking. He was within a few paces of the other man and still unnoticed.
Andrew Bradley was sitting on a guardrail at the edge of a parking lot overlooking the harbor, looking down an incline at a rail yard below. A freight engine was moving back and forth over the gleaming rails, shunting cars together. In the drawn out squeal of the brakes and the echoed thuds of the cars bumping into each other all on down the line, Andrew heard a haunting music.
"So which way are you going?"
Without alarm, Andrew turned at the voice.
"Excuse me?” Andrew said.
"North or South? Which way you going through?"
"West, actually. I was just thinking the same thing. Those freighters out there. They look like their passing belongs. They look like the hills of those islands."
"Everything passes through. Those islands will pass through."
"Deep. Want a hit?" Andrew said, offering his joint.
"Just what I was thinking."
Dodds took several short, hard hauls on the joint, then pulled the smoke deep into his lungs with a slow breath of the cool, night air.
'Maybe I should light one up, offer him a toke just before. Nice and easy, relaxed. Like any other day. Then - bam. 'I am my fathers' son, I'll say'. One shot. Bam. One dead fuck.'
"I just hitched in today. I was thinking I'd like to hear some music and have a beer."
"Couple okay spots. Bands are the shits, I guess. Rupert's has got a good jukebox."
Andrew's fourth beer was going down fine. People sat down and started talking and he was not bothered about trying to follow why. Dodds spoke briefly to many people, but most civilly to the ones it seemed he knew the least, many of whom were women. The bar held a ragged bunch. At the next table over an older guy who looked like a biker, but was probably a logger, locked eyes with Andrew. He wriggled in his fingers a small skull with rhinestone eyes.
Andrew turned back to Dodds.
"I've been hitching, right. I met this guy in McBride. He worked in a mill, asked me if I wanted to see it. I said sure. I'd been noticing sections of clearcut, but it didn't disturb me as I thought it would. Then at the mill I watched as this huge section of trunk got spun on a machine. They set a blade on it, and in seconds that tree, maybe a couple hundred years of growing, was shaved out into a river of plywood sheeting. And seconds later another was gone. Now that horrified me - but why? I've bought plywood. I'll probably buy it again."
"You're a pretty serious guy, Andrew," Dodds said. "What's your point?"
"You cut down a tree, that's one tree killed, but there are many trees in a forest. You cut down a whole forest, that's a forest killed. But the families of those trees, the pines, hemlocks, spruce, the race of those trees still exist in the world. Cut down every tree in the whole world, burn every log, board and table, burn all the wood in all the world. The idea of a tree still lives."
"So it's okay to cut down trees, or even a whole forest? You'd do okay with people around here."
"When do you care? Cut down one tree and you cut down all the leaves that ever would fall from its limbs. All that soil. You kill every seed it ever could nurture. So when does it matter? Does it matter?"
"What was your word? Deep," Dodds said.
Andrew didn't respond or continue. He was thinking again of the harbor, of the lights of freighters scribbling over the inky water, of the soft curves of the small, scattered islands, of open water. He was out past the Queen Charlottes, beyond the expanse of ocean beyond them.
"I'm going to kill a man," Dodds said.
"I'm sorry, you're what?"
"I'm going to kill someone."
Dodds leaned closer to Andrew, reached out and pointed his finger at Andrews' ear.
"I had a father. I loved him, and he's dead. Years now. That matters. I had a mother, but that doesn't much matter anymore. I've got a stepfather, and he never mattered. He tried to. But no. We go out in the boat, we fish. But no."
Dodds took out his pack, selected a cigarette and cupped his hands around it as he flicked his lighter. Andrew watched the mans’ features shift in the series of short, flashing sparks, watched the orange light of the flame on Dodds' skin. Dodds looked straight on Andrew in the last instant before he let the flame die. The ember of the cigarette blazed as Dodds took a deep, long haul.
"One time, it's my birthday, eighteen, and I go back to the box of my fathers' things. Books and books, and I never been much for reading. He kept journals. Over the years, sometimes I'd just hold them. I'm not much for reading. This one birthday I open them up, just to see the mark of his hand. And I see my stepfathers' name. I see it’s in there a lot. And so I started to read. And then I read a lot."
Dodds took another long drag, held it, then blew the smoke out slowly.
"And now I mean to kill that fucker dead."
Andrew waited awhile before speaking. He scraped his beer over some grit on the table between them.
"So how did your father die?"
"I was always told it was an accident. Out hunting."
"Obviously the journals don't say anything about that."
"The journals. The journals say they betrayed my father. They say it ended and my father forgave them. And my father died within a year."
"So this is where I ask how you know."
"Have you ever confronted your mother."
"I have no mother."
Again, Andrew hesitated. Dodds finished his smoke and butted it.
"So your father was wronged. And you were wronged. Everybody in the whole world gets wronged. But what difference does revenge make?"
"It won't bring your father back."
"It won't even bring me back."
Andrew woke to find the air of his tent hot and stale. He had slept fitfully, gaining little rest through the night, but had fallen into a deeper sleep just as he should have been rising. He had to dress and break camp hastily. Fortunate to snag a ride quickly, Andrew made it to the dock with just enough time to purchase his walk-on ticket as the last of the vehicles drove into the hold of the ferry.
Even after a second cup of coffee, as the vessel moved past the outer islands and into open water, Andrew felt acutely suspended. He moved around the open deck of the ship several times, keeping apart from the other passengers as much as possible.
Upon docking at Skidegate, Andrew went straight to the outfitters for propane. As he walked back to the road, a car pulled over before he had even raised his thumb.
“Where ya headed?” the driver asked as Andrew got settled.
“Any place I can camp for the night.”
“There’s a spot just past Queen Charlotte City. Cheap, and nothing fancy.”
When the driver pulled over, he got out and gave Andrew a small salmon he had caught that morning. Andrew was truly touched by the drivers’ gift, but the moment did little to lift his torpor.
"Last time I was on that beach there was still an open hot pool a short walk along to the west. Look for a shelter with a corrugated metal roof. But mind you don't stay in there too long. The heat can slow your heart rate to nothing. A person could lay down there and never get up again. It's happened," the man said before driving off.
The light of the day was beginning to fail by the time Andrew had secured a site and made his camp. Andrew wandered around the rocky shore, stopping now and then to examine thick snakes of kelp that lay washed up on the pebbles along with grey driftwood, broken sand dollars and abalone shells. Rust-colored seaweed clung to rocks out in the waves. A bald eagle, starting from its perch atop a high, dead tree flew off down the beach, then reappeared moments later, as it would again and again, scanning for prey.
A mauve and pink sunset spread across the western sky as Andrew used his hatchet to chop the head from the short salmon. He had a more difficult time opening and gutting it with his small paring knife, but soon had the fish sizzling in his collapsible fry-pan over a
Andrew ate his meal without haste, rubbed his tin plate clean with light sand at the shore, then sat quiet and still as the colors in the sky faded and full night deepened. He stayed out on the beach until the chilling air bit too deeply, then went back to his tent and lay atop his bedroll a long time without sleeping.
He dressed and went out into the night again. Thin clouds had come over the sky, but beyond them rivers of stars blazed a fierce, white light. He walked along, snapping on his flashlight now and again. It was only when a shape a ways up from the water caught his attention that Andrew remembered the hot pool. He shone his light and saw it spread across a metal surface.
Beneath the worn shelter was a single bench made from an aged, waterlogged timber. A length of opaque plastic tubing stretching over the rocks led Andrew to a small, dug-out pool rimmed by stacked rocks and fed by the steaming water that drained from the tubing.
Andrew dipped his fingers into the water, which was indeed very warm. He pulled up his sleeve and submerged his wrist, then his forearm. After crouching beside the pool awhile, Andrew went back to the shelter, removed his boots and set them side by side on the bench. He slipped off each sock and tucked them, one by one, into the boots. He removed his pants and shorts, and all of his upper layers, then slipped on his windbreaker again. Andrew sat down on the wall of the pool and eased his feet, then his legs in slowly until he felt the stones and silt of the bottom. A few moments later he removed the windbreaker and slipped into the pool. Andrew rested his head up on the stones of the wall, lay full out and floated.
After awhile the lightest of rains, more a heavy mist, began to fall, slightly cooling Andrews' chest. It was a most pleasant sensation and Andrew became deeply relaxed. The fine clouds moved slowly overhead, and stars, crackling bright stars, shone from the immense depth of the pacific sky.
Far, far in from Pluto, Neptune, Uranus and Saturn, Jupiter became the last of the observable planets to fall into what, from a certain vantage on Earth, could briefly be perceived as another transitory alignment of those ancient travelers. Further in, long past Mars, on the very fringe of the atmosphere of Earth, a waste piece of some human endeavor lost its fragile orbit and began to drop, at increasing speed, back down from whence it came. The trajectory of this bit of space junk brought it into the planets' Western Hemisphere above Graham Island, off the northwest coast of Canada, at the precise instant that its rapidly burning matter would have been visible to any eye that might happen to be trained on that particular section of the night sky.
The final instant of that blazing descent was faintly reflected on the metal shell of a telescope positioned on an expanse of ground at the west coast of Graham Island at Rennel Sound. The fiery fall and its reflection went entirely unnoticed by the telescopes' owner as he stood alone beneath the sky.
Head bowed, Paul Wilson gazed intently into the view piece of his telescope which was finely focused on the rare planetary alignment. Several times Paul stepped back and looked up at the lights in the sky, then once again set his eye to the telescope. Then Wilson stepped back, set his feet firmly, just slightly apart, and stood at length looking up, but more casually than he had before. A light cloud moved across his view, but Paul continued gazing up.
"Jupiter, of course, is most plainly visible, but it is Saturn that most appeals to me," Paul spoke out loud.
"I was only ten when I first viewed Saturn through a telescope, and it was that viewing
which began my long affair with aided celestial observation. But, you know that, my dear. Many times have I told you. Remember, dear, it was the first of the planets I ever focused for you. Then once again after you gave me this fine device. How many wonders we saw."