The interpreter was with a half-class of Grade 3 students in a meadow at the edge of a forest of Big-leaf maple trees and hazelnut shrubs. He said, “Find three different deciduous leaves and make rubbings of them using your crayons and paper, but,” he cautioned, “whatever you do, do not use this plant here.” He poked the plant with stick and bent it back and forth so that even the dimmest among them understood which plant. “Notice that there are other ones around too. Take a good look at these plants and be sure you do not touch them,” he said.
“Why not?” said a boy.
The interpreter said, “This is stinging nettle. It is covered in tiny hairs that contain acid. If you touch the hairs, the acid will get into your skin and it will sting very badly, worse than a bee sting.”
The students pondered, briefly. The boy touched the plant. He yelled, “Ow! Ow! Ow!”
“Why did you touch the plant?” the interpreter asked, in dismay.
From behind, another boy shrieked in pain. The interpreter turned to find him holding one hand with the other next to a stinging nettle.
“Do not touch the nettles!” the interpreter shouted.
Then a girl cried out, “Ow, this hurts, this hurts, this hurts!”
“Stop touching the nettles!” the interpreter yelled, and lunged to prevent another from stinging himself.
But there were fifteen of them and only one of him, so there was little he could do to stop the madness.
The teacher of the class, who had been some distance away with the other half of the students and another interpreter, now came upon her students bent over in pain, clutching their hands with tears rolling down their cheeks. “What’s going on?” she cried.
The first boy pointed at the interpreter, and cried, “He told us to touch the stinging plants!”
* * *
Alan Lennox’s camping-related area of expertise, the reason he was hired as a counsellor at Camp Ohmeemaw, was canoeing. He wasn’t the best of instructors, but he was an extraordinarily gifted canoeist. He had balance, strength, coordination, and the sense of connection to the canoe that is perhaps comparable to the connection between a skilled artist and his brush. At Camp Ohmeemaw he would show off by threading the needle. Off the scoured granite of Minister’s Point there were two cedar snags thrust up from the bottom the width of a canoe plus two paddle shafts apart. Pairs of practiced or extremely lucky canoeists could drift through, paddles held high, without brushing either snag. Alan, solo, would rush at the needle, paddling hard, chopping chunks from the lake. Twenty feet away he would pull his paddle from the water and dump it in the boat. Then he would lie down, feet first as though in a coffin, so that from the side the canoe seemed empty. Unfailingly it would fly through the needle like a barn swallow with folded wings passing through a knot hole in a weathered fence. No one ever figured out how Alan did that. Alan claimed it was no more trick than throwing a ball. He just aimed and did it.
As the weeks passed, Alan visited the Camp Ohmeemaw Nature House with increasing frequency—on nights when he wasn’t rolling on a heap of life jackets in the canoe shed with one or other female counsellor. His first animal sketches were of Olive the Tortoise. After he felt he had captured little Olive once and for all, he moved down the row of terraria. He wasn’t keen on the snakes, which were surprisingly difficult to draw. They were more than a simple curved cylinder, a rolled out strip of plasticine; they had an unusual cross-section, bearing a complex muscularity overlain by scales, each one a curved, irregular surface.
The first mammal he drew was a young raccoon that had been brought to the Nature House. It was too frenetic to keep in a cage, so William let it climb around wherever it wanted despite the destruction it would cause. It soon learned not to touch the hot overhead lights for the reptiles. Alan named it, “William Jr.”
He also drew a red squirrel, a cottontail rabbit, and a long-tailed weasel that had been found dead. His drawing brought it back to life. By the end of August, Alan had sketched all of the animals that had been in the nature house that summer. He would sit and sketch as William wrote his letters to Becky, and used up all of William’s watercolor paper. William bought two more large pads, knowing Alan would probably use them up before he had a chance to draw anything.
William saw that Alan was as startled as anyone at the effect of his drawings. They were technically excellent, with anatomical detail William felt a need to check. Alan drew things William had never observed in the creatures he had cared for, some for years. William saw what many would comment on in years to come, that there was a human quality to the animals, or at least a human sense of connection with the person viewing them. It was not an anthropomorphizing of wild things, but something much more affecting that no other artist had ever achieved.
William was perhaps the first to try to figure out why Alan’s art was so affecting. From his own history, and from watching the children he taught, he understood that most children loved animals. Because of this, their toys are animals. Their television is full of animals. Their clothes and eating utensils are decorated with animals. But at some point in human development, a point that William, thus far, had not reached, animals fall from favor. It was clear that most adults had little time for or interest in animals until, maybe, when they became parents, and second-hand they might be able to reconnect with other creatures through the eyes of their children. A child might be able to revive that dormant sense of wonder in a parent. William believed that that was exactly what Alan’s paintings did.
Foundational to the burgeoning friendship between William and Alan was the discovery that Alan was already a good amateur naturalist. It was an interest that ran against the sly and mysterious persona he was working on, and he had desired to keep it hidden. He had grown up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and had a father who took him to the Toronto Zoo a hundred times. As a result Alan was extremely animal-literate. Not only could he identify the snakes in William’s menagerie, he also knew that Olive was a Brazilian red-footed tortoise. He knew his birds, too. Like William, he had grown up with a bedroom full of animal books. At some point, unlike William, he had shifted his sharpest focus elsewhere, to girls, but still had maintained a guilty pleasure in animals, which he drew from to draw them. He guarded his secret until Camp Ohmeemaw. A few years later he was a millionaire.
Alan’s arrival in British Columbia was greeted by record rainfall. The Pacific Ocean was rising into the sky and then dropping onto the region day after day. Other than through niggardly tears in cloud cover, it seemed the inhabitants of Vancouver would never view the mountains again. On many such miserable days William was out in the rain, trying — and failing — to cheer up soaked-to-the-skin school children who didn’t want to learn about nature, really, especially if physical discomfort was involved. Alan drove William to the various parks, but usually stayed in the car, reading or listening to music. During breaks in the rain he might venture out to take a few pictures.
He took William to a grade 2 program about frogs at Deas Island Regional Park in the Municipality of Delta, south of Vancouver. On the way there they passed an ostrich farm. Alan almost put the Pinto into the ditch when William pointed out the big birds strutting back and forth in their pen.
“What the fuck?” he said.
They drove on through the park gates and Alan parked in a lot near an open field. “This is it?” he asked.
“You don’t like it?”
“How is this an island?”
William said, “Deas Island isn’t, strictly speaking, an island, at least not anymore. It was a marshy island, at least at high tide, or when the river level was high. Now it’s basically a tear-shaped blob of silt maybe half a mile long ringed by dikes that’s attached to the south bank of the Fraser by that little causeway we just drove over.”
“Oh,” said Alan. “I shouldn’t have asked. It sounds pretty boring.”
“No, it isn’t. Now much of it is heavily forested, mostly with cottonwood and alder, but there is an incongruous grove of Norway pines near the middle, planted years ago without much planning by a troop of Cub Scouts. At the far end there are sand dunes and an enormous patch of scouring rushes that squeak against the sides of your shoes as you walk through. There’s also a man-made surprise, the concrete mouth of the tunnel where Highway 99 emerges from beneath the river. The traffic comes roaring out of the center of the island onto a short bridge across the slough, headed south toward Seattle.”
“You can’t help yourself, can you?” said Alan.
“You want to come along?”
“Maybe later, if the rain stops. I want to check out those squeaky scrub-plants.”
Two other interpreters, Caroline and Monique, were waiting in the parking lot. With her face peeking from her Gore-tex rain-hood, Caroline looked young and sweet, her damp hair pressed against her forehead and pink cheeks. Monique had foregone her hood and her hair was wet and tangled, but it worked for her. She looked as though she were about to blossom. William, in a rebellious gesture, was wearing his ranger hat. In a fit of micro-managing, Ed Daddle had specified in a memo to interpreters that ranger hats were not to be worn in the rain. In bold type he wrote, It’s not a rain hat! It’s for sun only!!!
"I have something to tell you, William," Monique said, but before she could, the convoy of minivans and SUVs arrived. The interpreters’ hearts collectively sank. There was always the faint hope the children wouldn’t show up, or maybe would, but an hour late.
"Where’s this school from?" William asked Caroline.
"Surrey," she said, grimly.
“What part of Surrey?” William asked.
“You don’t want to know,” she answered.
The teacher emerged from one of the SUVs. She had an expensive purple rain suit and short red hair. "Hi, I’m Valerie Styviklstic," or something, she said. The interpreters pretended to be happy to meet her. Monique asked Valerie to divide her class into three groups, which could be a good stalling tactic if the teacher was disorganized. Many were, but Valerie wasn’t. The children even had nametags, which they were supposed to have but often didn’t.
The interpreters jostled to avoid the one group that had both a Jason and a Jordan in it. Monique ended up with it, but then outflanked William by whispering in his ear, "Fooj et moi, nous aurons un bébé. We want to get married and Fooj sent me an email. Il veut que vous soyez le meilleur homme."
"What?" She was speaking too fast and William was keeping his eyes on Jason and Jordan, who were stomping in a puddle, sending sheets of muddy water at the girls in Caroline’s group, who were screaming and frantically gripping at each other but didn’t have the sense to run away. Valerie Something was heading to her Starbucks in her SUV. The girls were shrieking as she drew her legs in and slammed the door.
"He wants you to be the best man."
"What?" She quickly took charge of Williams’ group, leaving him with J & J.
It would be an awful program, with time moving more slowly than the tide, which was battling the brown, springtime might of the Fraser. William led his group through all the usual activities: a discussion of metamorphosis with cheap plastic props, the frog-fly-heron wink-murder game, and, of course, a frog hunt, but everything was more difficult than usual due to the rain and the cold. Everything was hard, with cold, cramping hands — the repeated opening and closing the backpack to extract and return props, the creation of ersatz rain-ponchos from garbage bags, the manipulation of the tape recorder to play frog calls. Keeping the tape recorder dry was probably the most difficult thing. As they wound around the island, becoming wetter and colder, William became more and more infuriated at the Js, who wouldn’t stop punching and tripping each other, or other children, especially a silly girl named Kayla who seemed to welcome their attention while pretending to protest. William could see the rest of their difficult lives spelled out right there. Drunk, battered, and bedraggled, pleading their cases to RCMP officers born thousands of miles away.
Then, during the frog hunt, something unexpected happened — they found a frog. (Usually frogs were found when looking for mushrooms or songbirds or some other non-amphibian thing.) It was a tiny Pacific treefrog, hunched half-way up the thigh-high, moss-green leaf of a skunk cabbage that was reaching from the muck-filled ditch at the base of the dyke.
"Where is it?" They asked. Most couldn’t spot it, but as a group they were excited for the first time that day.
"Stay here, I’ll catch it," William said. He knew what would happen if one of them tried. But then Jason saw the frog, and jumped down the slope. "Stop!" William yelled. Jason stopped just short of the foul-smelling mud that grows skunk cabbages so well. Then Jordan was beside him. They were both reaching, pushing each other...... "Get back!" William yelled, but words had no effect on this pair. William jumped, landing solidly behind them, but then stopped. They were slipping on the wet grass at the brink of bottomless ooze. One started to go and grabbed the sleeve of the other, who turned with terrified eyes and reached for William. He raised his arms over his head. In slow motion William let them slide into the muck, to the delight of the other students. William could easily have prevented them from falling in, but chose not to. Worse, once they were floundering, he had a very strong urge to step on their heads. The frog was gone.
Another student found a branch and handed it down to William, who used it to haul the boys out. Briefly they were angry and embarrassed, but were soon back to their previous antics – although now soiled and in danger of soiling Kayla and the others, who ran ahead screaming. The program had disintegrated into mayhem. William chased them into a wooded section, slowed by the heavy pack bumping on his back. His clothes were soaked from condensation inside his rain suit and he
felt slightly nauseous by the time he caught up. The children had been stalled by Alan Lennox, who was standing in the middle of the dyke, looking ferocious. "Hello Dr. Kendall," he said, over the heads. He shouted at the troublemakers, "If you two don’t stop acting like fucking little pricks, that man over there will punch you in the ear!" He meant William.
The profanity and threat of violence reached them. There was relatively little discord in the remaining trek back to the parking lot. The teacher, Valerie, didn’t seem surprised at the sullied state of Jason and Jordan. She didn’t ask, so William didn’t offer an explanation. It was a relief when they finally drove away.
Monique announced that she had to go to the airport to pick up Fooj, and asked if Alan would mind driving Caroline back to Vancouver.
Caroline looked doubtfully at the Pinto, and clearly was imagining riding in the cramped back seat surrounded by painted flames.
"Change cars. Fooj will enjoy being in his Pinto," Monique said. Monique was driving a Volvo station wagon.
"No, you stay in the safe car," Caroline said. "You’re looking out for two."
"Two what?" Alan asked.
“Fooj and I are having a baby!" Monique said.
William found Alan’s reaction curious. Since his arrival, Alan had been quite friendly with Monique in what William had been reading as a familial way. However, instead of happy, he seemed stunned, briefly.
He said "Wow. That’s so cool." But he didn’t seem to mean it, not in the least. Then, as he was rearranging the trunk to make room for Caroline’s pack, he noticed that the lens cap of his camera was missing. He looked back through the parking lot. It was lying on its side against a painted wooden post. He walked back to get it. As he leaned, he almost lost his balance, and caught the post with his hand. He pushed himself up, wincing.
"Uh-oh. I should be more sensitive," Monique said.
William didn’t know what she was talking about.
"You see, because of Anna," she explained. “I should not be happy for me, with his loss. Poor Alan."
"Anna?" said William.
She shushed him, and then climbed into the Volvo.
William tumbled into the back of the Pinto before Caroline had a chance. She protested weakly and pretended to compromise by keeping her seat in the far forward position. They weren’t long off the island before Alan pulled over. He wanted to photograph the ostriches. Caroline and William waited in the car as he walked along the fence. William wasn’t watching when Caroline started laughing.
Alan was bent double, rubbing his head.
"The ostrich pulled his hair," she laughed. The largest bird was glaring over the fence at him.
The radio said traffic over the Alex Fraser Bridge was murder. Caroline said they should go for a drink at the Roadhouse that huddled like a troll beneath the massive suspension bridge’s southern end. Alan said fine by him. William didn’t want to, but was in the back, a kid whose opinion didn’t factor into anything.
As they sat in a horseshoe-shaped booth, Caroline in the middle, each with a pint, Alan claimed that the ostriches seemed dispirited and were staring at each other until he arrived, at which point they all agreed he was the common enemy. "While I was focusing on the brown one, the tall black one bit my head." Alan thought it was hilarious too. “Do you suppose they’re for eating?”
William couldn’t think of a more likely explanation.
“Well that’s not good,” Alan said. “Ostriches are too cool to be turned into burgers.”
"How’s Anna?" William asked, prompted by Monique’s remark. William remembered how fondly he had always spoken of his younger sister. William met Anna once, when he hitched a ride with Alan from Camp Ohmeemaw to Toronto on their days off. William remember her as cut from the same sharp, sarcastic cloth as Alan. From Monique’s comment, William had surmised something unfortunate had happened to Anna. Perhaps she had recently lost a child.
"She’s filthy rich and happy as hell," said Alan. Her husband is a complete dickhead and they live in Etobicoke, in a subdivision full of dickheads. They have three children, who will all no doubt become complete dickheads, if they aren’t already.”
"Umm, good," William said.
“Sorry for the language,” he said to Caroline.
“It’s fine,” she said. “Dickhead is not so bad.”
Since William had opened the door, Alan asked him about his family. “How are your parents these days?” He had met William’s parents once, for about five minutes. He was courteous, and afterward William’s mother said he had a nice smile.
William said, “Okay I guess.” He shrugged, looked at the ceiling, and then across the span of the roadhouse at the red-glowing exit sign.
After a few seconds Alan said, unconvincingly, “That sounds good.” He added, “Do you remember their names?”
William looked down into his beer and mused that those minute, yeasty bubbles were things all his ancestors had stared at. He admitted, “I don’t have a lot to do with them.”
“Good thing it’s a big country,” Alan said. “Otherwise, estrangement is awkward.”
“We’re not estranged,” William said. He wasn’t sure what the cut-off was between out of touch and estranged. Maybe they almost were.
“You saw them last...when?”
William had to think. “Four years ago?”
Caroline interjected, “You’ve not seen your parents in four years? Do you at least call them?”
“My mom calls me, now and then.”
Alan asked, “Aren’t they pretty old? Maybe they’ll need your help with things. Maybe they can help you with things.”
William answered, “I needed their help a long time ago. They didn’t help then, which kind of set a pattern. I doubt there’s much they can do now.”
Alan asked if William enjoyed making a living being out in the pouring rain with a bunch of little pricks.
“No,” William said, “and that was an especially bad group.” He looked to Caroline.
“Most are not quite so bad,” she sort of agreed. She added, “But you should be doing something else. You should get a better job and get married and have children, before you’re too old.”
There it was again. William didn’t argue. He knew from previous conversations with Caroline that in her view the essential mid- to long-term goal of almost any human endeavor was to get married and have children. This was a view commonly held among the larger population . Why was William so slow to embrace it? Lightning, maybe.
Alan said, “I agree. And you’re much more likely to find a wife in Ontario than in this foreign place. You’ll want to be doing that before your parents croak, which can’t be too far off. How will you feel then, when they’re dead, having ignored them during their final years?”
William recalled Alan’s sporadic, basically pointless goading back at camp, usually about girls, which ones liked him, how all he had to do was take a couple of nights off from his letter writing—ya know, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one in charge of the next cabin. Encouraging him to reestablish his relationship with his aging parents was a new topic. William didn’t much care for it.
But Caroline responded first, appalled at Alan’s cavalier mention of dying. "You shouldn’t say things like that! It’s bad luck. The ostrich must have pecked out some of your common sense."
He said, "Huh? You think you can cause someone to die just by musing out loud?”
Caroline looked away and shook her head.
Alan said, “You can’t cause a death by talking about it. Real death comes when it does, at a particular instant. Simply talking about someone dying won’t initiate that instant. It has no effect.”
William said, “The real point is that my relationship with my parents is none of your business. Other than that, what are you talking about? What is ‘real death’?”
Alan looked William in the eye as if they were sitting on opposite bunks, and then turned his attention to his empty beer mug, which he was spinning slowly on its cardboard coaster. Peering into the facets of glass, one after the other, he said in a lowered voice, “You and I, William, we’re still here. In some Ontario, somewhere, there could be graveyards with headstones with our names on them, and the date, July 12, 1989. Yet here we are, walking around, solid as can be.” He banged the table with his fist, causing Caroline to jump. He then scooted sideways, stood up and said, “I’m going to the can.” William and Caroline watched him wend his way through the tables.
“Okay, that was weird,” said Caroline. She then noticed the same thing William did. She asked, “If he’s so solid, why is he walking with a limp?”
On the way to drop William off, doing the slow two-step along Lougheed Highway, Alan said in the dark, “We should figure out a way to save those ostriches.”
“What about the beaver?” William was being facetious.
Alan said, “That too. Our mission is to rescue the beaver, but not by painting it.”
William went to bed remembering July 12, 1989.