One September morning, it occurred to me that Canada was the place where I really wanted to go. My boss Bill told me to take “as much time off as needed”. One by one, my colleagues came to say a silent good-bye.
I loaded the trunk of my old Ford and locked up the house. I have left the curtains drawn since the accident.
On my way out of Seattle, I stopped by the blue bungalow of my childhood. My dad was standing on the porch, as if he was waiting for me. He hugged me and looked at me with sad eyes. My dad’s grief is beyond words. He saw me to my car, took a look at the bric-a-brac in my trunk, and asked in a soft voice:
-“Will I see you again, Tom?”
-“I don’t know, Dad, take care of yourself” I answered while starting the engine.
In my mirror, his stooped silhouette grew very small and disappeared.
I have been driving for two days and two nights towards the North, making short stops to fill up my tank, buy food and beer. It is late summer, the sun is low in the sky and the clouds project huge shadows on the Canadian Rocky Mountains tops covered with snow. Past the city of Lake Louise, the road becomes vertiginous, lined with blue glaciers overlooking emerald lakes. The air is filled with the scent of pines. I drive with my windows wide open.
The tourist season is ending and the road is deserted. I drive by a caribou browsing on the side of the road, at the edge of the forest. I slow down. The Caribou lifts its head up, sniffing for danger. After a few seconds, he goes back to browsing.
As the sun disappears behind the mountains, I stop in the city of Jasper, by the Athabasca river. A steamy mist is rising out of the water. The main street is lined with motels. Some are already closed for the winter. I spot an “open” sign on a small Motel, “The Bear Lodge”. On the door, a poster boasts hot showers and stunning views. I push the door open. An obese man is sitting behind the counter, working on an outdated computer. He greets me without looking at me. I pay in advance for one night. The room is basic, with a narrow window what view can only be seen by standing on tiptoes. I go to bed without closing the curtains. In the morning, I shower and get into clean clothes before going out. I have decided seclude myself in a remote cabin in the surrounding mountains. I remember a fishing trip we made one summer with Elsa, long before the twins were born, where we caught rainbow trout in the roiling water of the Athabasca, twenty miles East of Jasper. We grilled the trout on an open fire by the river. Elsa had dipped a bottle of Pinot Gris between two rocks in a pool of icy water.
I slowly walk up Jasper’s main street, alongside the railways. The city is deserted. Right at the end of the street, I notice an open café. An ad is stuck on the window. “For rent: Cabin with a view”. I enter and sit down at a table by the window. I am the only patron. A dark haired woman with a tired look is busy behind the counter. She gives me a quick look. She must be fifty or so. She walks to me, holding a pot of hot coffee and the daily paper. I slowly push the paper away.
-“Sorry, I never read the paper”.
The woman takes the paper away without saying a word. I stopped reading the paper after the accident, one year ago. My entire family in that plane, New-York Seattle, AA087, 4:34 pm. On their way back from a week’s vacation at Elsa’s sister. My family. Paul the baby, the twins Simon and Luke, Elsa, scattered in New-York’s sky … Elsa, Paul, Simon and Luke. And me, forever alone with their gaping absence.
-« Some more coffee ? » she asks.
I am lost in my memories and it takes me a while to answer. Her coffee is hot and tasty. I shake my head:
-“ Please, thank you »
The woman comes up to me with a pot of steaming fresh coffee. She might be younger than fifty. She simply looks tired.
-« I saw the ad » I tell her while she fills my cup up.
-« The cabin? »
I nod yes. She stares at me.
-“It’s $300 a week, hot water and electricity included. There is a wood stove. The wood is $10 for a basket. I clean once a week and…”
I stop her.
-« Sounds good … where is it? »
-“Forty miles East, overlooking Maligne Lake. There is a view on the lake and it is facing the blue glacier. It is so beautiful”
The woman gets exited as she describes her cabin. She hesitates for a second and tells me she can offer me a special rate. An-end of-the-season rate. And she gives additional discounts for tenants who stay several weeks. When I tell her my plan is to stay at least three weeks in her cabin, I can see her eyes gleaming. She offers to take me to the cabin right away.
I take her up on her offer. She locks up the Café and takes me to her pickup truck parked across the street. Her name is Maria. She has been living in Jasper forever. Her husband, Ted is a professional mountain guide in the summer and a skiing instructor in the winter. Their two daughters, Liam and Lisa are both studying at Calgary University.
We drive for one hour. She stops she pickup truck alongside the road. A stream is threading among blueberry bushes.
She points towards a narrow path.
-“It is this way”.
The path is steep. I follow close on Maria’ heels. We walk silently for around twenty minutes before arriving in front of a modest wooden cabin. The entrance door opens on a porch.
The cabin is cramped and smells musty. Maria pushes the windows wide open. There is a fantastic view. East, the blue glacier, magnificent; the ice is forming majestic blue stairs going down in the valley. West, the eye dives towards Maligne lake, lined by a luxuriant forest.
-« I’ll take it » I tell Maria, as I look in fascination at the glacier.
That same evening, I settle down in the cabin. Maria has made the bed and left some fresh bread, coffee and beer. Ted is waiting for me in front of the cabin. He has brought some fire wood which he has neatly piled up on the porch. Ted is an imposing guy, with a beard and a jovial look. He shakes my hand vigorously and gives me an intense look.
Ted explains to me how the stove works and recites instructions about wildlife protection. He hands out a brochure on bears, published by the Jasper Tourist Board.
-“There are many bears in this area, we even get a few Grizzlies…” he explains.
Ted is ready to leave, but he seems reluctant to set back to Jasper. He fusses around me, checks on the stove again, explains me how to use the garbage container, equipped with a bear-proof-lid, and reorganizes the pile of wood on the porch. Ted seems to be waiting for something.
-“Are you going to be okay, Tom?” he asks all of the sudden.
We look at each other. I sense that Ted, past the satisfaction of an unexpected income, finds my presence in this remote place strange, even a bit suspicious. He stands in front of me and seems to hesitate for a few seconds. I can guess his unasked questions. He looks at me and then just leaves abruptly, waving good-bye.
-“Thanks, thank you for everything Ted” I call out to him as he reaches the path. He turns around and smiles at me.
I am alone. I unpack slowly. I have bought food and fishing apparel back in Jasper. I want to be alone, far from those who know. All alone, with my pain, coarse and devastating. Alone from sunrise to sunset.
My hosts have stuck on the old fridge a hiking trail map. The location of the cabin has been written on the map with a red X. I notice a trail which goes down to the lake. I fill in my backpack with a compass, cheese and bread and two beers and I set off for the lake.
The path snakes down under blue cedar trees. The sun is low in the sky and slips between the branches, creating a carpet of light and shade. The path takes a sharp turn and slopes down steeply. Suddenly the lake is in front of me, nestled in the hollow of the mountain.
I rush towards the lake, jumping between rocks, with bent knees. My backpack is bouncing against my shoulders. I reach the lake and stop, staring at my own reflection in the green water. I feel immensely sad. I take a few unsteady steps along the lake. A wild duck takes off in front of me, the flapping of his heavy wings breaking the silence. I sit down on a log by the lake and I carefully unpack my food. I eat slowly, watching the mountains stretching purple shadows in the water. A sound behind me makes me turn my head. A slight rustle. The noise stops. And resumes a few seconds later, the sound of crumpling leaves. It strikes me as a human noise. I put the piece of bread I am eating on a rock, stand up and start talking to the noise:
The noise stops. But I can sense its presence, close, restrained. I speak aloud. I hardly recognize my voice. It sounds strange, as if coming from far away, a soft and sad voice.
-“I know you are there. You don’t need to show your face if you don’t want to. I don’t really want to see you, you know. Neither you, nor anybody. You see, the reason I am here, well it is really to escape from the others. All the others. People. Family. Friends. Colleagues. Oh! people are awfully kind, full of compassion. They cannot look at me in the eyes without having their eyes watering, without telling me “Poor Tom”, without inviting me to spend the week-end in their country house. I cannot stand their looks. I cannot bear seeing their kids.”
The noise starts again, muffled, at a distance. I realize it is fading away. It is silent again. I finish up my bread and go back to the cabin. Night is falling.
That first night in the cabin, I struggle to go to sleep. The fridge is humming continuously. The cabin does not have any shutters and the night is loaded with stars which diffuse a blue light through the window. I doze off into an agitated semi-sleep. The dream comes. It is always the same dream. There is a huge hole in my bed which opens in to the sky. I dive into the hole. I fly towards the sun, my arms wide open. Soon, the twins come flying with me, and then Elsa joins us. She is holding Paul in her arms. They are smiling at me. We fly. We fly together, smiling. The twins love it. They fly ahead. Simon does a pirouette. Luke calls me:
-« Daddy, daddy, look, I can fly, I can fly really well ».
All of a sudden, I fall, swallowed by the infinite. They stare at me. They stare at me silently. They stare at me as I go away. Elsa. Paul in her arms. Luke and Simon. I want to talk to them, but I remain silent, helpless.
That is the point in the dream where I wake up, in tears. And then, I try to go back to sleep and I try as hard as can to go backwards in my dream, the beginning, their peaceful faces, their light bodies floating in the sky. But there I remain, stuck in my bed with open eyes, prisoner of my infinite pain.
I wake up. The sun is pouring in through the window with the blue Glacier’s view. It is drawing a triangle on the floor by the bed. I remain in my bed for a long time, watching thousands of tiny incandescent particles dancing in the sun beam. A sudden urge for coffee make me jump off the bed. I make the coffee and go outside on the front porch. West, the Lake radiates a blue metallic color. I decide I’ll go fishing.
The path to the lake does seem familiar and shorter than yesterday. While arriving at the lake, I meet a couple of hikers who greet me. I make a little hello sign. I choose the same spot as yesterday. I spend long hours, standing on a flat rock, making my fishing line dance over the water. My arms are stiff. My mouth is dry. Occasional wild duck flights make me look at the sky.
Bubbles appear regularly on the surface of the water. I can sense the invisible presence of fishes, close by.
After three hours of fruitless fly fishing, I decide to change my fly. I cut the line with my teeth and pick up a small fly, multi-colored, with a small shiny oval piece of aluminum. As I tie up my new fly, I hear a sound behind me. I immediately recognize yesterday’s rustling noise.
I look back. The noise comes from the edge of the forest, less than 100 feet from the lake’s shore. I stare at the foliage, in vain. The noise is still there, sporadically. I turn towards the lake and throw my line back in the water with a smooth motion. The rustling noise increases. I keep my eyes focused on the fishing line and start talking to the mysterious noise:
-“I am happy you are back today. Actually, I was kind of looking forward to your coming back”
Ma line tightens. I pull in a tiny fish entangled in brown weeds. I set him free.
-“Can you imagine, it is my very first fish of the day. Too small. Do you like fish? My family adored fish. All sorts of fish. Freshwater fish, sea fish…we were crazy about fishing »
Another rustle behind me, closer this time. I continue to stare at my fishing line.
-“I never mentioned that to anybody, but the initial plan was that I should have stayed with the twins. With Simon and Luke. Elsa should have left them at home with me, go to New York with the baby. That is how we had planned it. And then, just a few days before going, she changed her mind…I am so angry with her…I…I think I’d better try another fly, don’t you think, if I want to catch something before it gets dark.”
My rod bends sharply, indicating a good size catch. I slowly pull my line in. The fish resists. I give some slack. My catch struggles against my line and dives deep in the water. I slacken my line further. I am so focused on my catch that I have completely forgotten the presence behind me. All a of a sudden, the fish jumps out of the water. It’s a rainbow trout. A good 15-pound rainbow trout. I bring the fish in, unhook it with an expert gesture holding its gills. I then slide a piece of string under its gills and tie it to an exposed root by the lake, so that my fish can bathe in the cool water.
I throw my line back in the water. A few seconds later, I bring in a blue trout, smaller. Then another one. I rest my rod against a tree behind me and get my lunch out: bread, cheddar, a couple of apples. My trout bathe in the water next to me. The third one wriggles from time to time.
After having eaten my lunch, I lie down in the grass by the lake, face under the sun. Strange shiny shapes float under my closed eye lid. My arms and shoulders are stiff and painful. My feet are freezing. I like the tired out feeling of my body from the continuous fishing.
Almost against my will, I feel excited by this morning’s fishing. Suddenly, I fall asleep.
I wake up, shivering. The sun has disappeared and a breeze has risen. I have slept for a long time… a deep sleep. I get back on my feet. My fishing rod has fallen on the grass. I realize that my trout have disappeared. The root I had tied them up to has been snapped. I look around me. Nothing. I carefully scrutinize the surroundings without finding any clue of what happened to my trout. I set back slowly towards the cabin.
Ted pays me a visit me late afternoon.
-“I just wanted to check that you did not need anything” he gives as an explanation. I kind of feel happy to see him. I offer him a beer and tell him about my fishing day and the missing trout.
-“It might be a prowler…there are a few hobos who are camping on the other side of the lake” Ted explains after listening to the story of the disappearance of my trout.
We talk for a long time. We discuss the beauty of Nature, the surrounding wildlife. Ted loves bears most above wild animals.
-“It is not that bears are specifically intelligent animals, he reflects, speaking in a soft voice, but in a way, I find them…human…they like been talked to in a kind voice, they are able to pick up berries delicately, to fish by hand…the Indians thought that bears were reincarnations of their ancestors …there are so many legends on bears…”
Night is approaching. Ted loves to talk, and I realize that I enjoy his company. Ted, while drinking his third beer, relates how Zeus, to protect his son and his mistress Kallisto from Era’s jealously, sends them in the sky, creating Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
-« I love this myth, Ted explains as he is leaving, I like the idea that the dead are stars and that I just have to look up to see them, twinking above me…”. He looks at me. His eyes are gleaming in the twilight. I cannot help thinking that he has guessed my pain.
The following morning, I decide I want to solve the mystery of the volatilized trout. I walk down to the lake and settle at my usual spot. I catch a fish right away. I tie it up safely, and let it bath in the water, at the same place as yesterday. I sit back, hidden behind a rock and I wait silently. After a long time, the familiar rustling resumes, at a distance at first, and then coming closer and closer. I hold my breath. From my hiding place, my field of vision is restricted to a few feet of the shore where I left my catch. I can now distinguish shuffling feet. The steps come even closer. I feel a human presence. The steps stop for a few seconds. Has the walker guessed that I am hiding ? He is so close now, but I still cannot see anything. I stiffen. At that precise moment, I see him. He is walking slowly towards the lake, on all fours.
His coat is dark and shiny. He is a black bear. When he reaches the shore, he sits and expertly grabs the fish with his paw. With his other paw, he pulls out the string and throws it back into the water. He gobbles up my trout in seconds. Then he inspects the surroundings, visibly looking for other fish. He freezes abruptly. He turns around, stands on his back legs, and looks right at me.
The bear is standing less than 50 feet from me. He is swaying from side to side, with a threatening look. He seems huge to me. Since the accident, I have been thinking that fright was an emotion which had forsaken me. I could not fear anything. I had lost my loved ones for ever; I did not care what happened to me. But there in front of the bear, I am petrified. I flatten myself against the rock and try to remain still. I remember Ted’s advice, and I start talking to the bear. I recite him a poem very slowly; Yeat’s The Stolen Child:
Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light
The bear seems to be listening to me. He stops swaying.
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
The bear gets back on all four and slowly takes a step towards me. I remain stationary and I continue to recite my poem. The bear is now less than 10 feet from me.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you
The bear sniffs at me. I look at him and I try to smile at him. He then turns away slowly and heads back towards the forest. I call him back.
“-Bear, Hey, Bear, you know, I told you things I have never said to anyone.”
The bear turns his head back, takes a glance at me, and disappears into the foliage.
During my stay at Maligne Lake, the bear is paying me visits regularly. He remains at a distance, seated. He watches me peacefully while I fish. I always leave a couple of fish for him on a flat rock by the water. From time to time, I tell him stories, I share with him the memories of my fishing parties with the twins, I tell him about Paul’s teddy bear, I whisper to him my secrets, the softeness of Elsa’s skin. Some other times, we just stay together, silently.
It is now the end of November. The days have become very short. The air is icy. I sleep with the stove on. I have not seen the bear for the past 4 days. I go down to the lake every day at the usual place and I wait for him in vain. He is gone. Ted, while dropping off some wood for the stove, explains to me that the bear has probably started hibernation.
I decide it is time for me to go home.
Time has gone by. I am back in Seattle. My grief has not left me, nor has the dream. A few months ago, I met Paula. Her smile and her patience have given me hope in my ability to love again.
I go back every year to the Maligne Lake cabin to fish. Ted and Maria have become close friends.
When the night is clear, I sit on the porch under the sky shimmering with stars and I stare for a very long time at Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.